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Feature Story

Members of the Murdoch University research team pose with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The team is using the ScanEagle UAV and other unmanned technology to track and study marine mammals off of Australia's western coast.

Neil Smith/Insitu Pacific photo

Members of the Murdoch University research team pose with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The team is using the ScanEagle UAV and other unmanned technology to track and study marine mammals off of Australia's western coast.

From saving soldiers to saving whales

A dugong off the Western Australian coast is monitored by ScanEagle.

ScanEagle photo

Two dugongs off the Western Australian coast are monitored by ScanEagle.

Insitu Pacific's ScanEagle unmanned aircraft system is reputed as an essential and life-saving asset on the battlefield, clocking up more than 400,000 combat hours in support of global coalition forces. But the world-class aerial surveillance and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), developed in partnership with Boeing, is now attracting attention for its diverse uses off the Australian coastline.

Insitu Pacific recently teamed with researchers from Murdoch University in the first Australian trial to investigate whether the UAV's sensor systems can be adapted for wide-area marine mammal surveying.

The three-year trial is in its early days, but the ScanEagle just completed the first series of flights off the Western Australian coast, and researcher Amanda Hodgson told Australia's SBS Radio that the trials offered potential for safer and more reliable recording of marine mammals such as dugongs and humpback whales.

A group of dugongs off the Western Australian coast is monitored by ScanEagle.

ScanEagle photo

A group of dugongs off the Western Australian coast is monitored by ScanEagle.

"Normally we have observers recording the animals as they see them in real time, so this [trial with the UAVs] gives us a permanent record of the animals via photos, and we get more precise data about where the animals are with the GPS locations," Hodgson said.

The initial flights have provided the researchers with up to 15,000 photographs for analysis to determine the best way of utilizing the UAV.

"Using UAVs for commercial applications, like marine mammal monitoring, is something we are keen to promote and develop in Australia," said Andrew Duggan, managing director of Insitu Pacific. "UAVs such as the ScanEagle offer a unique, long-endurance capability to monitor whale, dugong and dolphin populations without posing a risk to aircrew in what is generally accepted as a higher-risk environment. This is because aircraft conducting this type of mission have to fly long periods at low altitude, well off the coast. ScanEagle also has the added benefit of being environmentally friendly, given the almost insignificant amounts of fuel we use compared to other aircraft or helicopters."

And while the trial is in the beginning stages, Hodgson is enthusiastic about the potential of UAVs for marine mammal surveying.

"There is a long way to go yet before you see UAVs around regularly, but I think it’s got heaps of potential for all kinds of research - marine and terrestrial - so I do think it is the way of the future," said Hodgson. "I'm working out what sort of flight parameters are the best to use: what speed, what height, and then how good the camera is in varying wind conditions and with the sun at various times of the day.”

In addition to this program with Murdoch University, there is increasing interest from environmental monitoring and conservation organizations in the use of unmanned platforms such as ScanEagle.

“The use of this kind of technology to take photographs of species worldwide, both marine and terrestrial, would absolutely serve as a vital weapon in the battle to save the world’s endangered species from the brink of extinction,” said Merove Heifetz of the ARKive initiative, which is creating the ultimate multimedia educational guide to the world’s threatened species.

By revealing what these species look like through photography and film, ARKive aims to shine a spotlight on the many thousands of threatened species and, ultimately, help to ensure their conservation. You can see pictures and videos of, along with information about, marine mammals and thousands of other species on ARKive.org.

Kerry Beck contributed to this report in the U.S.