The skies above the Florida Keys may soon have multiple drones aloft with word that the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will begin testing the unmanned craft for Sanctuary duty.Test flights are scheduled to begin today in waters off the Upper Keys as well as Lower Keys.
Federal scientists hope the drones, which boast real-time video and photo capability – can help monitor wildlife at close range with minimal disturbance.
“Testing unmanned aircraft in the diverse habitats of the Keys will help demonstrate the applicability of this technology in supporting science and resource protection in ecosystems around the world,” said Sean Morton, sanctuary superintendent.
The drone being tested, known as the PUMA UAS, is a 13-pound, battery-operated aircraft with a nine-foot wingspan. It can be hand-launched and recovered from land or at sea.
And the drone can fly for up to two hours on a single charge, according to the manufacturer.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s interest in drones comes on the heels of a test flight conducted last month at the behest of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, hoping to use drones to spot hidden water holes that breed mosquitoes in remote off-islands.
A North Carolina company, Condor Aerial, did one demonstration flight Aug. 26. Then on Monday of last week, Mosquito District Director Michael Doyle met with Kevin Brown, a Marathon man who hopes to start selling “unmanned autonomous vehicles” or UAVs.
The Marathon-based contractor brought a working craft known as the DJI Phantom and S800 model “multi-rotor” drone that uses rotors for lift. The Condor drone has wings and a single rear propeller that more closely resembles a bird in flight.
The district has not made a decision about proceeding with drones, but the Condor Aerial system, with training, would cost about $80,000 to start. The S800 craft would cost the district less than $10,000 after being modified for mosquito control use, according to Brown.
NOAA’s foray into drone technology for the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary is examining how unmanned craft can approach wildlife with minimal disturbance, according to Morton.