ODFW uses drones to monitor birds

ODFW to deploy drone aircraft to monitor birds at Haystack Rock on Oregon coast
By Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

High winds, rocky terrain, salt water and seabirds can make flying on the Oregon Coast challenging, even dangerous under the best of circumstances. For a team of researchers from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University these conditions represent the ideal laboratory for testing unmanned or “drone” aircraft.

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

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. 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 Lindsay Adrean, ODFW’s avian predation coordinator. Currently, the department 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.”

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 will be traveling with four students and two drone aircraft from the university’s Daytona Beach, Florida 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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