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FAA Rules on Drones Grounding Science

While unmanned aerial vehicles are beginning to capture the broader public's attention, many scientists say they can revolutionize marine research and conservation efforts without risking life, limb or graduate student.

The leopard seal is a majestic, 10-foot-long Antarctic predator with the jaws of a lion that can be as much of a nightmare for researchers at they are for emperor penguins.

Studying them can be tricky — too much anesthesia and you harm the animal, too little and you harm the scientist. To Wayne Perriman, that's where drones come in: Scientists can glean quality information from a remotely-piloted aircraft without risking life, limb or graduate student.

"These systems are really working well," said Perriman, a La Jolla, Calif.-based researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) whose expertise is tracking populations of marine mammals. "There's a value added with these things. But you have to balance the value with the amount of effort it takes to get clearance."

By clearance, Perriman means permission. While unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are beginning to capture the broader public's attention, many scientists are also beginning to say they can revolutionize marine research and conservation efforts. From helping villagers across the globe enforce fishery rules to monitoring marine mammals to tracking oil spills, drones offer a low-cost, long-range, high-quality alternative when it comes to collecting data.

But scientists are running into some of the same problems as hobbyists, journalists and commercial ventures such as Amazon who are interested in drones. But delays of new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone rules in some cases are impeding scientific progress, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has reminded people that low-flying drones are not allowed over much of the reserve's airspace, despite the immense popularity of drone-filmed YouTube videos that have the ability to stir public sentiment for conservation.

Perriman said he has to file reams of paperwork to get permission to use drones, which he will do in some cases. Drones come in especially handy in harsh environments such as Antarctica or Alaska's Aleutian Islands, he said.

"It's unbelievable how much work it is," Perriman sighed. "That's one of the reasons I do most of the (drone) work in the Antarctic, because it's not national airspace. I just have to ask permission of the country that owns the airspace."

Local drone warning

Because of their use is global conflicts, there has been a stigma around drones. But their adaptation to more peaceful means has largely severed that association with war, and they are now seen as having huge potential to do everything from deliver packages to expand our understanding of the earth. NASA has already flown drone into hurricanes and the mouth of a volcano.

But it is their rapid adaptation by the general public that seems to be drawing concern. When docents at Monterey's Hopkins Marine Station recently complained that a seal rookery was disturbed by an amateur drone pilot, officials at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary warning that drones may not be flown over water along many (but not all) of the region's coastal areas, though sections of Santa Cruz County are free of flight restrictions.

In a likely sign that drone rules are in flux, that warning has since been removed. A sanctuary spokesman said it is being reviewed, but Bill Douros, West Coast regional director for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said the rules stand.

"What we want is for everyone to be thoughtful about how they're doing it. If you're flying it on the beach, that's OK. But if you're flying it over the water, are you in one of these zones? And if you're in one of these zones, you need to come talk to us," Douros said.

Researchers and even commercial ventures can still get permits to fly drones (and other aircraft) in protected areas, but the rules still consider small, unpiloted aircraft the same as the larger, piloted variety. That can be a source of frustration for amateurs — flights aren't allowed below 1,000 feet under sanctuary rules, but can't go higher than 400 feet under FAA rules.

Further, getting federal approval for anything can take months, and the broadly written Marine Mammal Protection Act presents another barrier, prohibiting not just killing and capturing marine mammals, but "harassment," which can include disturbing any behavioral pattern. Douros said it's clear that drones can harass marine life.

"There are a lot of very legitimate uses for these and our agency's evaluating them. But there are a lot of concerns about widespread public use," Douros said.

Test flights

Last month, NOAA announced that researchers at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off Washington were testing fixed-wing Puma drones, which can land in water, to observe animals and search for marine debris. Douros said Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is also weighing a study, likely using the same type of drone. Planned for September, the project would use UAVs to search out endangered leatherback sea turtles.

Todd Jacobs, a Santa Barbara-based project scientist for NOAA's unmanned aircraft program, has been exploring drone's scientific value at locations ranging from the Arctic Circle to Hawaii. He has designed a number of drone studies and uses, including using drones to locate tons of derelict fishing gear entangled in delicate reefs along Hawaii's northwest islands.

While the current regulatory environment allows scientific drone use, Jacobs described rules that sound burdensome. Trained pilots are required to operate the unmanned drones, communication frequencies have to be cleared through the Federal Communications Commission and drones often have to stay within a pilot's line of sight — even though they could be programmed to patrol and explore a much larger area.

For example, Jacobs said drones could be programmed to run nighttime reconnaissance missions to enforce fishery rules. But if they have to stay within a scientists' line of sight, what's the point?

"You may as well bring binoculars," Jacobs said.

All those rules also make spontaneity elusive, with scientists having to line up several layers of regulatory clearance in advance. Everyone seems to be waiting for the FAA to bring some clarity to the debate.

"You're going to see, I predict, a big surge in their use, especially after the small (unpiloted aircraft) rules are distributed and understood," Jacobs said, adding that more than just scientists want to see what the FAA decides. "There's an industry waiting at an inflection point right now."

Sky's the limit

One advantage of drones is that they're a low-cost, high-quality alternative to costly (and polluting) flyovers that potentially make good science cheaper. Photographing leopard seals and whales from above give you data about their size and numbers, and drones can reach colonies of birds that humans cannot get to.

Shah Selbe's imagination is bigger than that. A National Geographic Young Explorer, Selbe said he sees the potential for a revolution in how the world's oceans are monitored, with drones doing the grunt work of monitoring fisheries, searching out debris and discarded fishing gear, tracking oil spills and more.

Selbe is currently using a grant from the venerable conservation society to develop drone protocols for everyone from conservation groups to fishing villages. By lowering the barrier to entry and teaching people how to use them, Selbe is, in essence, democratizing drones.

"I'm basically looking to make other organizations be more effective," Selbe said, who calls himself a conservation technologist. "I know for a fact this can completely change the way we protect our oceans."

One way Selbe sees drones being used is enforcement. Villagers from the South pacific to the Caribbean could use drones to protect traditional fishing regions from commercial overfishing by documenting illegal practices.

As technology improves, so will the potential for drones, Selbe said. They can replace the "dull, dirty and dangerous" work of researchers, and by eliminating the need for fuel, are a complete game-changer when it comes to otherwise costly flyovers.

"I get tons of feedback. Everybody wants to know how to make it work. Everybody wants to see the outcome of this effort," Selbe said.

©2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)