Civilian use of aerial drones is still greatly restricted, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has won permission to test a small unmanned aircraft off the Olympic Coast of Washington.
A two-week trial run by the federal science agency is now underway.
The NOAA drone looks like an oversized remote-control model airplane. It has a 9-foot wingspan and can fly for about two hours on battery power.
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Carol Bernthal says the drone offers a cheaper, less intrusive way to take high-def video and still pictures of offshore seabird colonies.
“It has lower noise than a traditional aircraft, which is what we typically use for surveying seabird colonies,” says Bernthal. “You obviously don’t want to disturb the animals when you’re doing the survey because we’re trying to do counts.”
Bernthal says the “flying camera” will also survey coastal waters for trash, including possible fresh waves of Japanese tsunami debris.
She promises the drone will be used for science missions only. “We are not spying on anybody. We are not using it for enforcement purposes.”
Bernthal says her agency reached out in advance to the Quinault and Quileute Indian tribes. Those are the main population centers on the thinly settled stretch of coast.
Last summer, Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife tested a smaller aerial drone with the same purpose in mind. Agency biologists and students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University steered the unmanned aircraft around Haystack Rock in Tillamook County to take aerial photos of the cormorant colony there. But that project is now on hold indefinitely because of difficulty obtaining permission to fly from the Federal Aviation Administration.