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The first of two scheduled deployments of unmanned aircraft systems over the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands showed they can be used to conduct research without harming the region’s fragile ecosystem, federal scientists said today.

Researchers from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service used the Puma system to perform surveys of monk seals, sea turtles, sea birds and vegetation and to look for marine debris. The aircraft completed seven flights

“This is a great example of how investing in our ability to deploy state of the art technology to conduct observations in remote locations can provide critical data to help NOAA in our conservation and resilience missions,” said Todd Jacobs, project scientist for NOAA Research’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program, and lead for the Hawai‘i missions. “We were able to survey in remote coves for monk seals and turtles in conditions that we may not have been able to safely land people ashore,” he added.

Unmanned systems conference 2014 – Israel

The Puma is a 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft with a nine-foot wingspan, equipped with real-time video and still photo capability. The aircraft can be hand-launched from any location on land or at sea from a boat and is controlled by specially-trained pilots with NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. Durable and rugged for deployment to remote marine areas and repeat usage, the aircraft can fly for up to two hours on a charge and cover a range of about 50 square miles.

In tests across the national marine sanctuary system, the system has proved to be a potential tool for environmental research. It can fly lower and slower than manned aircraft and is very quiet, allowing permitted scientists to gather population data without disturbing wildlife. It has the potential to be useful in other large-scale protected areas.