drone ocean

How Drones are Helping Marine Biologists

Oh, the endless possibilities of drone technology. From toys to tools drones deliver. As tools, their versatility lies in the ability to go where humans cannot go or where humans may just be in the way. That is particularly why there are numerous environmental benefits provided by drones.

Marine Mammal Research

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is putting drones to work in the studies of marine mammals. NOAA researchers, Lisa Conger and Elizabeth Josephson, are certified UAS pilots who are revolutionizing the study of whales and seals by using drones. This past April they put to use an APH-22 hexacopter at Cape Cod in order to collect photographic data of whale pods.


During the course of 15-20 minute multiple daily flights the researchers were able to capture hundreds of images in only two weeks that normally would have taken months. The excitement over the effectiveness of using drones is due to:

  • Their maneuverability as compared to that of a boat.
  • They can fly in weather that would prevent a boat launch or fly-over by plane.
  • Drones are less intrusive and disruptive to marine mammal behavior.

Quality Of Results

The images produced through drone activity provide an enhanced perspective of endangered North Atlantic right whales, including mothers and calves. Researchers are pleased with the opportunity to have more possibilities in monitoring the health of the whales through the images collected:

  • Length/girth ratios.
  • Calf growth rates.
  • Behavioral studies.
  • Identification of individual mammals.

One More Tool

Traditionally research has relied on whale-spotting techniques with high-powered binoculars. If weather conditions were favorable a boat or plane could launch to speed toward the area and take photographs. There is no prospect for drones to completely replace getting up close and personal in boats or aerial flyovers by plane, but their use is yet one more tool to help researchers succeed in their efforts.

The Drone Dimension

Seals in Love

Image courtesy of the Humane Society

The first flights of the APH-22 were not just for whale studies. This particular craft has also been successful at capturing images of seal pupping on Muskeget Island. During that mission the APH-22 was not alone. A fixed wing drone called an eBee, belonging to Duke University, joined the mission. Twin Otter, an NOAA manned aircraft, performed flyovers as well, also capturing images of the seals. The results of each craft were then compared to determine how each performed. Their particular strengths determine which situations a particular craft might be preferred.

Becoming a NOAA Certified Drone Pilot

Josephson and Conger completed a week of training with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center that is located in La Jolla, California. Their instructors have vast experience in aerial photography of marine mammals, the imaging systems used, and the manufacture of the APH-22 drone. In addition to a week of academic study requirements, NOAA certified drone pilots must also pass the medical exam required of a FAA class II pilot. The last step to become certified is to pass the FAA’s private pilot ground school test. The certification process is rigorous and can take months.

Flight Prep

As researchers prepare for a mission, they don’t just launch their drones as they please. First, they create a detailed risk management plan. This plan is submitted, along with a flight request form, to the NOAA’s Office of Marine & Aviation Operations. Pilots must operate the drones within specific guidelines such as:

  • Flying within a maximum altitude of 400 feet.
  • Maintaining a line of sight at all times during operations.

Considering that APH-22 hexacopters can cost more than $30,000, it is no surprise that one guideline is maintaining a watchful eye on the drones. The hexacopter is equipped with not only a high-quality digital camera but also many sophisticated systems.

Why It Matters

There is much more to the mission of quality research and study than just collecting data. How the information is used is why this research matters. Coastal communities rely heavily upon the health of marine life to sustain their communities. Many earn their living through recreational tourism or the seafood industry. Drones are proving to be an critical part of maintaining the integrity of the interdependence of marine life and coastal communities. Their contribution to conservation efforts and environmental resource management is priceless.



About the Author

Adam Shore

Adam is a Central Florida alum who recently left the Orlando area to relocate to Denver, where he enjoys shooting aerial photography of the Rocky Mountains. And to ski. He is a member of the AMA and was been a drone photographer since the early days of the industry. Follow him @dronegenuity.