Drones Used to Count Endangered Sea Turtles

Researchers have determined that swimmers who are counting turtles miss about one out of every 10 turtles in the swimming area, and drones help improve accuracy.

by Brian O'Connor, The Virgin Islands Daily News / August 16, 2016

(TNS) — ST. THOMAS — Officials with the University of the Virgin Islands have begun using drones to count sea turtles in Brewers Bay.

Researchers don’t yet know how many sea turtles exist in the bay, but UVI Center for Marine and Environmental Studies acting director Paul Jobsis said researchers don’t know the numbers. Past counts have been regularly conducted using swimmers in the bay, though researchers became concerned about their counts may be missing some turtles.

They decided to try to use unmanned aerial systems — known colloquially as drones — to enhance their count of juvenile hawksbill and green sea turtles in the local environment, Jobsis said.

So far, the results have been mixed, Jobsis said.

“We fly the drone up above them, see the turtles and get an accuracy estimate,” he said.

Based on preliminary data, researchers have determined that swimmers who are counting turtles miss about one out of every 10 turtles in the swimming area, Jobsis said.

“We also found a couple of turtles where we missed them using the drones, but swimmers counted them,” he said. “It’s a little bit of balancing one off the other.”

An accurate count enhances efforts at conserving both species of turtle, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act and labeled critically endangered by the World Wildlife Fund.

“We need to understand not only how many there are but also estimate what areas of the bays they’re using,” Jobsis said.

The idea to add drones came about accidentally.

Jobsis was flying a drone of his own and damaged it in a crash. In a search for a repairman, he found Nick Lynch, a local remote control airplane and drone enthusiast. Lynch and other radio control enthusiasts gather on Saturday afternoons on the soccer field at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School.

Lynch, who has a sideline business constructing drones, hesitated to describe his enthusiasm for them. He said that he’s concerned about the current free-for-all surrounding the drones industry and that independent operators sometimes advertise as a drone business without operating in a responsible fashion.

“I’m the only one who follows the rules,” he said.

Those rules can be daunting for newcomers, Lynch said.

The Federal Aviation Administration divides airspace throughout the country into six categories, each describing a different type of airspace and different rules that apply for pilots in each, according to the FAA safety website.

For example, airspace higher than 18,000 feet above sea level is class A airspace. Airspace surrounding the nation’s busiest airports from the ground to an altitude of 10,000 feet is class B airspace. Airspace surrounding smaller airports with a control tower, such as King Airport on St. Thomas, from the ground to about 4,000 feet is Class C airspace.

Class C airspace extends in a five-nautical-mile radius from the core area of the airport, meaning most of St. Thomas is Class C airspace.

On St. Croix, an area from roughly Christiansted out to Point Udall is Class E airspace, which is basically everything else between the ground and 18,000 feet.

Under the current regulations, Virgin Islands National Park on St. John is off-limits for now, Lynch said.

FAA regulations state that drone operators can operate within Class C and Class E airspace only with the prior approval of the air traffic controllers in the tower at the airport.

The FAA is revising drone regulations. A list of regulations is available at www.faa.gov/uas/.

Lynch said that he’s notified controllers at the airport during each of two sea turtle counts conducted in recent weeks — when he used a water-capable splash drone to help count turtles — and that he understands and appreciates the rules.

“When it comes to flying around Brewers, I give them my time and location,” he said. “So if someone calls them, they can say ‘That’s Nick Lynch and he’s authorized to be flying drones there.’ ”

Despite the regulations, Lynch is bullish on the future of drones in the Virgin Islands for more than photographing weddings and real estate.

For example, he says he offered to construct and operate a large custom drone for local public safety officials with large lights to aid in search and rescue. Officials were receptive at first, according to Lynch, but he said they were concerned about him potentially viewing crime-scene photos, which has slowed progress.

Lynch cited a recent incident in which a Coast Guard helicopter searched Magens Bay for a missing swimmer, only to discover that the man had wandered off and headed home and wasn’t missing at all.

“I was going to build a hexicopter with a huge LED array, a huge spotlight that wouldn’t cost the system $50,000,” he said.

The FAA rules also currently don’t allow an exemption for public safety operations, Lynch said.

“It’s a wait-and-see kind of thing,” he said.

©2016 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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