Drones For Science-Based Missions

Can the government use a drone to watch over a marine sanctuary in Florida?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been testing the remote-controlled aircraft called Puma AE (All Environment) in marine sanctuaries around the country since May 2013. The Puma AE resembles a big-scale model aircraft except that it is controlled remotely. The testing was aimed at determining if unmanned aircraft can be used for scientific purposes instead of being confined to military use. 

Special Bulb - Aviation Lamps - Oct 2013bildeOther Potential Use For Drones

The NOAA’s Commissioned Officer Corps based in McDill Air Force Base in Tampa are confident in what the technology of UAS (unmanned aerial systems) can do other than to spy on war-torn areas or the combat field. In 2012, NOAA had undertaken the purchase of three Pumas and a ground station that includes remote controls and computers where the videos and pictures will be stored. The miniature drones or unmanned aircraft have already been tested at the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Hawaii, Greys’ Reef in Georgia, Channel Island in California and Olympic Coast in Washington State.

frigate bird silhouette backlight breeding season

Watching Over A Marine Sanctuary

The latest test was done at the vast Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary over Pigeon Key – a mangrove island where frigate birds hover around the island. The Puma looks like a big bird with its nine-foot wingspan. During the test, the 13 pound aircraft’s propellers gently whirled and the small green and red aviation lamps blinked like Christmas lights in the sky. In the Pigeon Key testing, the Puma circled the island from about 200 feet, giving a bird’s eye view of the seabirds’ activities through the videos and pictures captured and transmitted back to the computer at the ground control. 

Advantages Of Unmanned Aircraft

While the Puma AE had been tested by the US Navy from the flight deck of the HSV 2 Swift to demonstrate how the drone proved effective in tracking mock illegal operations like drug-smuggling, the officers at NOAA are hopeful that the aircraft will help science-based missions. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are cheaper, safer and greener than manned aircrafts. The aircraft can operate on lithium batteries for two hours, after which the batteries can be plugged into a wall charger and left to recharge. 

In addition, the unmanned aircraft does not require an aircraft carrier for landing purposes. It can land like a seaplane and its waterproof so the still and video cameras are well protected. 

What Aircrafts Like Puma AE Can Do

Special Bulb - Aviation Lamps - Oct 2013 800px-Sanc0602_-_Flickr_-_NOAA_Photo_LibraryWith a stringent safety and operational checklist that the drone had to go through before each flight, NOAA lists down what the aircraft can do for science. It can:

  • Fly about 12 miles and as high as 500 feet from the remote-control operator
  • Do wildlife surveys, bird surveys as well as visitor usage surveys at remote islands
  • Document marine and shoreline debris
  • Assess prop scar damage
  • Respond to boat groundings
  • Monitor oil spills
  • Survey endangered species
  • Be used for marine mammal (dolphins and pilot whales)
  • Help in the study of frigate birds to identify critical habitat


With the many benefits derived from a cost-effective solution, the country should look into the need for drones to be used more for scientific causes. Do you agree?