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Scientists Using Drones to Study Hawaiian Wildlife

Jul 09, 2014 12:22 PM EDT

Scientists are using drones to survey endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other wildlife in Hawaii, officials said Tuesday.

Next week, researchers will deploy a NASA Ikhana plane at the remote atolls of Nihoa, Necker and French Frigate Shoals - all of which are within the vast expanse of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

"They're a dream for doing wildlife surveys in remote places," Todd Jacobs, a project scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's unmanned aircraft program, told the Associated Press (AP).

The flight will enable the research team to test the unmanned vehicle, including its optical and infrared imaging systems, Jacobs added.

Seals aren't the only thing that will be on Ikhana's radar. It will also keep watch on sea turtles and sea birds, and look out for ocean debris and monitor vessel traffic, as well.

The plane - similar to the Air Force's Predator drone - has a wingspan of 66 feet and may carry thousands of pounds of payload on board. It has already helped researchers map wildfires on the US mainland, and may be used to conduct surveys around Niihau island.

According to the Hawaii Tribune Herald, last month a small drone, called Puma, was used by scientists to study wildlife in the Papahanaumokuakea monument. The battery-powered Puma has a nine-foot wingspan and weighs a mere 13 pounds - features that allow it to be quiet as not to disturb local wildlife.

Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said the Puma surveys, using high-resolution cameras, for monk seals were "wildly successful."

"We were able to identify animals on the beach and in the water, identify mother-pup pairs, and get a sense of the age class of the animal - all things that are important for population monitoring," Littnan said, according to the Herald.

Scientists plan to compare data from the Ikhana and Puma, along with information gathered with more traditional methods, to determine the best use of unmanned aircraft for managing the monument.

If the results from Ikhana are anything like those from Puma, researchers may have uncovered a novel way of successful surveying remote areas in the world like Niihau.

"Using this type of technology is helpful to supplement monitoring and research efforts in large and remote places like the monument," added David Swatland of the NOAA.

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