Drones tested for wildlife, boater surveys in Florida Keys

National marine sanctuaries are testing to drones to survey protected animals, check for habitat damage and keep tabs on boaters.

NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries conducted tests in mid September of the Puma unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, in the 2,900-square-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spent about $400,000 for three Puma aircraft and one ground station.

NOAA is working with other federal agencies to test unmanned aircraft — including the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service.

The 13-pound, battery operated Puma aircraft is controlled by a pilot on the ground and can stream real-time images back to the ground crew.

The Puma is considered good for surveying wildlife because it is quieter and can fly lower and slower than a manned airplane. The small plane can be hand launched and recovered from any location, including a boat. It can fly two hours on a charge and has a range of about 50 square miles.

“Testing unmanned aircraft in the diverse habitats of the Keys will help demonstrate the applicability of this technology in supporting science and resource protection in ecosystems around the world,” said Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

In the recent Keys tests, the Puma was used to count boats in the upper Keys. It photographed boat propeller scars in Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, surveyed sea bird at Pigeon Key and used infrared cameras to monitor Key deer activity in the National Key Deer Refuge.

Keys test missions that were scrapped because of technical problems with the planes or bad weather included sea turtle and marine debris surveys and exploring the possibility of visitor counts in the lower Keys.

“Unmanned aircraft systems represent the next development in marine resource monitoring and are potentially cheaper, greener and safer than manned flights,” said Matt Pickett, aviation operations coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Upcoming events

Sea shells seminar: Ed Petuch, a Florida Atlantic University geology professor and author of a book on South Florida sea shells, will give a presentation on rare and seldom seen sea shells at 11 a.m. Saturday in the education center at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park on Singer Island. The fee is $5. To register, call 561-776-7449, Ext. 104.

Outdoors first aid: An expert with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue will give a presentation on first aid in the outdoors during the Oct. 7 meeting of the Florida Trail Association. The hiking group meets at 7:30 p.m. at the nature center in Okeeheelee Park. It’s free.

Expo returns: The Florida Sportsman Expo returns to the South Florida Fairgrounds Oct. 12-13 with fishing seminars, tackle sales and hands-on instruction by South Florida fishing experts. Admission is $8 or free for kids 12 and under with parents. For details, go to www.FloridaSportsman.com/Expo.

Bird-watching tour: The next bird-watching tour at the Lakeside Ranch Stormwater Treatment Area in Martin County is Oct. 19. Tours at the new STA are scheduled the third Saturday of every month through April. To register, call Martin County Audubon at 772-288-2637. For more information, go to www.audubonmartincounty.org.

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