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Today’s guest believes there is, and she’s making it her mission to spread the word. Alicia Amerson is a marine biologist, drone pilot and instructor, and marine conservation and policy consultant. She is also the founder of AliMoSphere, a start-up company dedicated to protecting our ocean heritage with science, partnerships and technology. In this edition of the Drone Radio Show, Alicia talks about efforts to educate pilots on how best to fly drones so as not to disturb or cause harm to natural wildlife. She also talks about the beneficial applications of drones in studying or collecting data on marine mammals. And she’ll talk about the highest cause of mortality for biologists in the field and how drones can reduce that risks.
In This Episode
Preventing Large Whale Entanglement – A Scientific Perspective Collaborates with Policy Support
Project conducted by Alicia Amerson of AliMoSphere and presented at the American Cetacean Society Conference in 2016 and Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in 2017.
Integrating UAS technology has opportunity to advance entanglement response strategy and efficiency, leading to a decrease in the whale’s stress level and increase the safety of the response team by minimizing overall response time. UAS provides faster data collection than traditional methods, leading to a quicker evaluation and entanglement strategy. Additionally, UAS may be able to locate an entangled whale faster than a boat.
UAS provides real time data of entanglement and high quality images of whale body condition. Used for spatial mapping of whale habitats and prey distribution, as well as, monitoring human activity around whales- it can be used as tool for long-term monitoring to reduce risks of entanglement.
Integrating UAS technology, licensed UAS pilots, and UAS best practices would increase success of protecting whales from entanglement.
California Whale Rescue
UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center
American Cetacean Society - San Francisco Bay Chapter
In Australia We Start With Precautionary Measures
In July 2015 I woke up in the most remote city in the world - Perth, Western Australia. I was thrilled to join my first drone research study with Dr. Fredrik Christiansen, a large whale researcher at Murdoch University. From Perth, I knew I had another 2.5 hour plane flight before arriving in Exmouth, WA and had already traveled halfway across the world. I was ready to see the red earth from the air and meet my Australian colleagues that I had been skyping with for the past year while conducting my own ecotourism research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Just two weeks prior to arriving in Exmouth, I had reached out to Fredrik to ask him what he was researching. He mentioned humpback whales in their reproductive area and drones - I quickly responded “Would you like some help?” and he said “Yes be here in two weeks.”
There I was packing up my apartment in San Diego, CA after finishing my Master’s degree and ready to take off to Australia on what I can officially say now was the start of my future career in drones.
When I arrived in Exmouth, Fredrik explained the methods of collecting body condition photographs using drones. We would go out on a small boat where we would launch a splash drone after we located humpback whales. Preferably we looked for mother and calf pairs that were logging or resting at the surface. In the Exmouth Gulf, female humpback whales bring their calves into the protective water to get away from killer whales, nurse their calf, and allow time for the calf to grow stronger before returning to Antarctica where they forage on krill for the summer months.
Over the winter months female whales will give birth and nurse a calf, and amazingly they do not eat while doing this. They lose massive amounts of body fat while nursing and swimming their calves. Fredrik’s research observed how much fat a female whales loses over the winter months spent in the reproductive area and how big the calf grows over the same time period. By measuring individual whales we can determine population health, and relate it back to their foraging grounds and the future success of the calf. When a mother has sufficient fat reserves she not only provides sufficient resources for her calf, but she provides a window into the availability and health of her prey source - krill in Antarctica.
Not only is this research an innovative use of technology, but the methods for using precaution methods and reducing impacts to the whales were integrated at each step. Precautionary measures are careful actions you take in advance for example, putting on sunblock before you go to the beach.
To this point in my experience working on cetacean projects I had not worked on a project that was more dedicated and concerned with reducing impacts to the animals than collecting the data. Had I not been a part of this project, I would have continued to view marine mammal research as a right of the researcher under the permission of a research permit to disturb the animals, not the opportunity to research animals without causing disturbance. This is not to say that as researcher we actively seek to disturb animals, ideally I believe all researchers want to observe animals in nature and acting naturally. I am only commenting on the implementation of precautionary measures as it applies to my previous experience in the field and not reflecting in general on marine mammal scientists worldwide.
"Environmental scientists play a key role in society's responses to environmental problems, and many of the studies they perform are intended ultimately to affect policy. The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making." (Kriebel et al., 2001)
Precautionary measures can be built into a permit.
When deciding to fly over individual whales we first had to know who the individuals were and if we had flown over them in the previous three days. Per the research permit we were only allowed to fly over individual once every three days. This allowed the whales opportunity to bond with their calves and reduce cumulative impacts caused by daily interactions.
Precautionary measures can be implemented at any stage of the project.
1. Take your time.
Prior to taking flight we spent approximately 10-20 minutes deciding if we should fly over the whale(s).
Some of the considerations before operating a drone over a whale included:
2. Flight operations.
Whales tend to dive for long periods of time, so once we decided to take flight sometimes they would leave the area. Other times whales would stick around for a flight or would continue to log or rest without seeming to acknowledge that our boat was close by.
At the end of every drone flight there is an alarm indicating the battery is low. One time the battery ran low and after collecting the drone from the water we parted ways with a group of male humpbacks fighting each other for reproductive rights (I imagine). As we were preparing for the next flight and had made some significant distance (so we thought from the whales) we found them charging our way. We had to make way again to increase our distance, and it appeared that as we tried to cautiously part ways with this group, perhaps they had included us in this reproductive war. It was at this time we had to stop our field operation and move along beyond the territory of these rambunctious males.
Understand the behavior before, during, and after a flight is important for the safety of the whales and researchers. A situation can quickly change in 10-20 minute flight.
3. Boat engines are loud.
A recent study showed that humpback calves whisper to their mothers. It is important that the engine is in neutral if the whales are swimming near the boat.
In one scenario we were repairing gear and shut off the boat. Suddenly a juvenile humpback swam under and around the boat. It spy hopped right next to us and once the drone was operational the whale had swam off and we never located the individual.
These are my personal observations and experiences from using a drone from a boat. UAVs are being used around the world for cetacean research. In Australia in 2015, 2016, and 2017 Murdoch University has used UAVs to measure body condition of cow/calf pairs in both humpback whales off the coast of Western Australia and southern right whales in South Australia. In these studies and like many others, drones are reducing the carbon, anthropogenic, and acoustic footprint of the research team; and minimizing the risk to humans that manned aircraft surveys poise.
As a result of working with Fredrik in 2015 and 2016, I decided to create the Marine Wildlife UAS Task Force. The Task Force is developing best practices for UAS flights over marine wildlife. Our group is comprised of scientists, universities, government, organizations, and commercial industries that operate in and around marine wildlife. There are a few guideline documents to reduce impacts to wildlife in the marine environment.
Implementing best practices for flying drones in marine habitats includes education and outreach and this is where individual commercial and recreational pilots can take advantage of the best practices created by the Marine Wildlife UAS Task Force and provided in the ECO-Drone program.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also published best practices for recreational drone pilots.
Kriebel D, Tickner J, Epstein P, et al. The precautionary principle in environmental science. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2001;109(9):871-876.
A robotic seagull and confusion around the current drone regulations
In January, 2015 I boarded a whale-watching boat in Dana Point, California. During the trip we followed a gray whale migrating towards the lagoons in Baja de California, Mexico. We were not the only boat following this individual whale. There were two boats following directly behind the whale, while we travelled parallel with the whale as it hugged the coast. The interesting part of the trip was when I noticed a white seagull traveling directly above the gray whale. This caused me to raise up my camera to get a good view of the bird and what it was doing.
I was well into my study reviewing the best practices of whale-watching from Canada to Mexico following the gray whale migration. This was the first time I had seen a seagull traveling directly above a whale. As I looked closer, it turned out this seagull was robotic, it was a drone.
At this point in time I knew the regulations for using drones over marine mammals were unclear and without going through the traditional manned airplane pilots licensing training there was not a legal way to fly drones. This struck my curiosity and began my investigation into drone stewardship and marine wildlife
In two years we have seen a significant rise in drones flying along our coastline in California. We have also seen an increase of drones used on whale-watching boats among the California fleet and globally drones are becoming more popular for marine mammal research. In July 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved a pathway for a drone pilot to become licensed under Part 107.
FAA requires anyone who is going to make money from the use of a drone to obtain a license, but does not require recreational pilots to obtain a license. This means anyone can legally purchase a drone and fly it without understanding airspace regulations or wildlife stewardship. The FAA does not consider wildlife protections when developing or enforcing airspace regulations. Not to worry there are regulations to protect wildlife.
But here is where it gets tricky.
Drones used for marine mammal research are increasing in value and interest. Researchers are making certain their research drones are not causing disturbance to wildlife. Researchers who use drones conduct their studies within the approved parameters established by permits that are required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), while recreational and commercial drone pilots are not required to operate under a MMPA permit.
45 years ago, drones were not used for marine mammal research or available to the public. This means the MMPA regulatory body falls behind the current integration and accessibility of drones in our world today, and how they may impact wildlife.
However, other aircraft (manned planes and helicopters) are known to cause disturbance to all types of marine animals, so regulations to decrease marine wildlife disturbance were added to theses regulatory bodies: MMPA, the Endangered Species Act, and Migratory Species Act. And scientists have found that drones cause disturbance to marine wildlife.
Therefore, current regulatory bodies have lumped drones into the same category as other traditional aircraft.
Specific Overflight Zones were created in National Marine Sanctuaries to prevent harassment that is the result of aircraft flying at low altitudes directly over critical habitat. The regulation states that aircraft are prohibited from flying below 1,000 feet altitude in Overflight Zones.
Although there are protective zones, the entire U.S. coastline is not a designated Overflight Zone. For instance, in Monterey, California the entire bay is a National Marine Sanctuary with four designated Overflight Zones. This means in the four Overflight Zones aircraft are prohibited from flying under 1,000 feet, while the rest of the sanctuary may have flights under 1,000 feet.
The questions remains … is the drone causing disturbance?
The MMPA clearly outlines what is illegal and we know that landing a drone on a marine mammal or any contact with a marine mammal either intentionally or accidentally is a violation of the MMPA. Chasing marine mammals is also a clear violation, especially if the animal has noticed the drone or demonstrates avoidance behavior.
Monterey is a beautiful tourist destination with six different whale-watching operations. Within the local fleet, individual operators own multiple boats that they take out daily. Collectively, the industry has decided to integrate drones into their marketing and tours.
This is one of many examples of why people are questioning how to integrate stewardship of drones so we ensure responsibly and safe flights to protect wildlife in the marine environment. Without establishing conservation parameters the increased use of drones may have a cumulative impact to the whales and other animals photographed or videoed while using a drone.
Cumulative impact is when “the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (Federal or non-Federal) or person undertakes such other actions.”
For example, a researcher who is permitted to use a drone for her study is flying close to the animal for a specific purpose. The drone may cause disturbance to an individual or group of animals while collecting photographs. In a photogrammetry study, she may take a photo of a mother whale and calf, this is within the permit parameters, but she may only be allowed to photograph those individuals once every three days. This is intended to reduce human-induced stress to the whale(s). By providing the break the natural behavior of nursing and resting will happen while eliminating the mother’s need to protect her calf.
Where as whale-watching boats may take different tours throughout the day to see a specific group of foraging humpbacks, not allowing periods of time for the whales to recover from tours throughout the day or from previous days of concurrent viewing. Not only are the whales potentially impacted by drone use, but also by acoustic noise pollution from the boat’s engine noise. They never really get a break.
Why are cumulative impacts important to address?
We know that if animals are not able to forage and rest properly they will get sick. Like humans, if we do not properly care for ourselves we tend to get sick as well. Allowing ample recovery time between our interactions with wildlife will make us better stewards of the natural environment and provide conservation measures for marine wildlife.
Here are a few takeaways:
1. Creating a general awareness campaign is a simple step that drone pilots can take to avoid making marine wildlife aware of their presence and learn to recognize avoidance behaviors of the animals that will be in the designated flight path.
2. Sea lions, seals, seabirds, sea otters, and other wildlife are sensitive to drones in rookeries and nesting sites. Be aware of the animals and their seasonal habits.
3. If you’re a drone enthusiast know that the MMPA is a complex legal document that comes with steep fines, loss of equipment, and even jail time if a violation is enforced.
4. Drones are more affordable and reliable, they capture amazing photographs of marine wildlife and provide a new perspective. Drones are less intrusive than boats and allow a larger audience to observe wildlife in their natural habitats.
5. We know researchers have rigorous permitting processes, while others do not.
6. Be a steward of the technology and the habitat you’re flying in. Work within the existing regulatory framework.
7. It only takes one unfortunate incident to permanently restrict the use of drones for marine mammal and wildlife observation.