NOAA Drone Flying Experimentally Off Olympic Coast

By Tom Banse

Civilian use of aerial drones is still greatly restricted, but the federal science agency NOAA has won permission to test a small, unmanned aircraft of the Olympic Coast of Washington. A two-week trial run is now underway. 

Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife has lined up a smaller aerial drone with the same purpose in mind. But use of that drone to monitor an off-shore cormorant colony had to be put on indefinite hold. The agency says it's having difficulty getting permission to fly from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

This drone looks like an oversized remote control model airplane. It has a nine-foot wingspan and can fly for about two hours on battery power. The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Carol Bernthal says the drone offers a cheaper, less intrusive way to take high-definition video and still pictures of off-shore seabird colonies. 

"It has lower noise than a traditional aircraft, which is what we typically use for surveying seabird colonies," Berthal said. "You obviously don't want to disturb the animals when you're doing the survey because we're trying to do counts."

Bernthal says the "flying camera" will also survey coastal waters for trash, including possible fresh waves of Japanese tsunami debris. She promises the drone will be used for science missions only. 

"We are not spying on anybody," Berthal said. "We are not using it for enforcement purposes." 

Berthal says her agency reached out in advance to the Quinault and Quileute Indian tribes. Those are the main population centers on the thinly settled stetch of coast. 

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