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Oregon Seeks Drone Use To Monitor Salmon-Eating Cormorants, Possibly Do Wildlife Surveys
Posted on Friday, July 27, 2012 (PST)

Due to complications in securing federal authorization, experimental flights of unmanned aircraft at Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon coast scheduled this week have been postponed, according to project coordinator Lindsay Adrean of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A team of researchers from Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla., had planned to fly a 54-inch “drone” aircraft Thursday and today around Haystack Rock near Pacific City in an attempt photograph double-crested cormorants at the coastal site.

Cormorants are being monitored by state and federal officials, in large part because of their predation of salmon and steelhead off the Oregon coast, in the Columbia River basin and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

ODFW is also looking into the feasibility of using unmanned aircraft in wildlife surveys.

However, under federal aviation rules, drone aircraft are not allowed to fly outside of restricted airspace without a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to get a FAA waiver in time to fly this week,” said Adrean. She said ODFW will pursue a “certificate of authorization” from FAA and attempt to proceed with the experimental flights at some point in the future.

“We actually just got shut down,” Adrean said Wednesday of the FAA’s reaction to an ODFW announcement of its drone plan.

The FAA’s Les Dorr Jr. said that the agency authorizes “unmanned aircraft systems” to fly outside “restricted” airspace in two different ways: Special Airworthiness Certificates for civil aircraft and Certificates of Waiver or Authorization for UAS flown by public entities such as Oregon Fish and Wildlife. Public applicants make their request through an online process and the FAA evaluates the proposed operation to see if it can be conducted safely.

“We don't discuss who has or has not applied for a COA, but it would appear Oregon Fish and Wildlife would require a COA for bird monitoring,” Dorr said. “The same would apply if a public entity is doing the Snake River salmon count.”

The Idaho Power Company employed drones last year to chart fall chinook salmon spawning evidence – redds or nests – in the lower Snake River but was told by the FAA that such activity in the future would require federal permission.

High winds, rocky terrain, salt water and seabirds can make flying off Oregon’s Pacific coast challenging, even dangerous under the best of circumstances, according to the ODFW. For a team of researchers from the OSFW and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University these conditions represent the ideal laboratory for testing unmanned or “drone” aircraft.

Drone aircraft being developed at Embry-Riddle was to be deployed from Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area July 26-27 in an attempt to photograph double-crested cormorants nesting on Haystock Rock.

Double-crested cormorants are large seabirds that inhabit Oregon’s estuaries during the spring and summer. Cormorants, which can eat up to two pounds of fish per day, have been identified by sportsmen’s groups and others as a potential threat to the outbound migration of salmon and steelhead.

Plans are in the works to, potentially, dislodge a portion of what is believed to be the West Coast’s (and possibly the world’s) largest nesting double-crested cormorant colony near the mouth of the Columbia River on East Sand Island -- a relatively short flight north of Haystack Rock. Federal, state and tribal officials are concerned about cormorant predation on juvenile salmon and steelhead that are funneled down from the Columbia, Willamette and Snake river basins past East Sand. Many of these wild stocks are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

An effort has been made to discourage cormorant nesting this year at East Sand, but Adrean said there have been only a few of the birds known to resettle in other coastal estuaries, at least so far.

The state monitoring is intended to keep track of bird presence, and movement.

ODFW is monitoring the cormorants at Haystack Rock as part of a broader population study to find out what impact the birds may have on migratory fish. Cormorants are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so extra care must be used to ensure the birds are not unduly disturbed.

“Our hope is that with unmanned aircraft we will be able to do a better job of monitoring the cormorant colonies,” said Adrean, ODFW’s avian predation coordinator. The department now relies on aerial photos generated once a year by manned flights along the entire Oregon coast contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It would be nice to be able to get this kind of information week-to-week and we think UAVs may give us that capability,” Adrean said.

UAVS are not only less expensive to buy and operate, but they are safer as well because they do not require onboard crew.

“We potentially see numerous applications for this technology,” said Adrean, including waterfowl, elk and fishing surveys.

The project on the Oregon coast will be the first of its kind for UAV research at Embry-Riddle, according to Patrick Currier, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who has planned to travel with four students and two drone aircraft from the university’s Daytona Beach, Fla., campus to Cape Kiwanda.

Currier said the primary UAV is made of Expanded Polypropylene (EPP), weighs about six pounds, has a wingspan of 54 inches, is powered by a small electric motor, and is equipped with an autonomous control system. It is based on a radio-controlled aircraft known as the Ritewing Zephyr II.

“We’ve never used the UAV to fly over water with the kinds of wind shear and rock you have on the Oregon coast,” said Currier. “Our goal is to prove the feasibility of the project so we can further develop a system that doesn’t take a whole crew of engineers to use it.”

The aircraft will be launched from the beach with a catapult made of PVC and will fly autonomously along flight paths plotted ahead of time with GPS coordinates in the restricted airspace around Haystack Rock. The flights will be monitored on a laptop computer, with a radio-control pilot standing by to take over the aircraft if something goes wrong. The craft is equipped with an Android smartphone that will take photographs at preset intervals and save the images with their respective GPS coordinates. The students have named the craft “Androne,” playing on the words “Android” phone and “drone” aircraft.

Currier estimates the cost of the aircraft is between $500 and $1,000.

“That’s why we’re doing it with the smartphone, so people who need it can actually afford it,” he said. It remains to be seen whether the smartphone will produce usable pictures.

Currier said he will consider the project a success if his team can get the plane into the air, make a couple of flights around Haystack Rock, and get back to the beach with photos that Adrean can use to count cormorants.

“Drones have been getting a lot of bad press, lately, and we’d like to help change that,” Currier said. “We want to prove these drones are very useful in applications beyond the military and law enforcement.”


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