Coastal Researchers Are Testing Drones In Beaufort

Jun 15, 2015

Assistant Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation and Ecology at the Duke Marine Lab Dave Johnston explains how the drone works to his technical and undergraduate students.
Credit Scott Taylor - Duke Marine Lab

We take part in drone testing with the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort.  From tracking sea turtles off our coast to collecting information about marine debris, drones are proving beneficial to coastal scientists.

From Amazon’s package delivery drone to the Air Force’s mighty MQ-1 Predator, unmanned aerial vehicles come in a variety of shapes and sizes. At the coast, marine scientists are working on new ways to apply the technology, with promising results.

It all starts in a large, open field in Beaufort. Assistant Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation and Ecology at the Duke Marine Lab Dave Johnston lugs a grey, hard-shell carrying case out into the middle of the clearing, sets it down, and begins assembling the battery-powered fixed-wing drone.

“Made by a company called senseFly, they’re a Swiss company.  They make both these kind of fixed wing platforms and they also make the multi-copters, the quad copter ones as well.”

Credit Scott Taylor - Duke Marine Lab

Weighing in at just over 24 ounces, the eBee is no Predator. Inside, it contains a GPS, barometer, and an instrument that measures wind-speed called a pitot tube. Once Johnston attaches the wings, the drone prepares itself for takeoff.

“The pitot tube has an LED in it, and right now it’s going through all of its system checks, and when it glows green it’ll have found all of its GPS locations, it will have set its barometer and everything and it’s ready to go.”

Once the eBee finishes its autonomous pre-flight check, all Johnston has to do is program the flight plan on his laptop. While this is just a testing exercise, he hopes the Marine Lab will one day be able to use the eBee for research projects like mapping marshes and tracking sea turtles.

“You can see on the map here we’re in this spot.  What we’ll do is make a little survey pattern and you can see it’s drawing a little box there.  And we can then upload that to the drone.”

Because the UAV uses GPS for navigation, Johnston says it’s very accurate.

“It’ll come and land…see, it’s still going through its flight test right now, but it will come and land within five meters of this spot right here.”

After the radio modem wirelessly transmits the flight information to the drone, we’re ready to fly. 

“What I’m going to do is shake it three times, and that’s going to start up the propeller, and then the propeller will then speed up and get to its appropriate speed for takeoff.  The pilot probe will change colors, it’ll go blue at first and then it will start flashing green when it’s pretty much ready to go. And then if I tilt it up it’ll go back to solid green and then it’s ready for launch.”

Credit Scott Taylor - Duke Marine Lab

It’s windy today, and the drone is tossed around as it climbs to an altitude of about 250 feet.  Instead of a drone, it looks more like a hawk soaring high above the ground. But to Johnston, it resembles a fighter jet.

“So, we kind of when with the Top Gun names.  Right now, Maverick is in the air, and Iceman is back at the lab.”

Both drones can stay in the air up to an hour. But because of the winds today, Johnston decides to bring Maverick down.  He enters the command to land into the laptop and it’s transmitted to the drone.  

“And so now, it’s figured out it’s going to come back, it’ll circle to figure out the best approach vector for landing and then it’s going to come back in and land hopefully right were we thought it would.”

As Maverick gradually descends, the propeller changes speeds rapidly and the flaps adjust to bring it in for a soft landing.

“It’s a little windy, usually it comes back within about five meters.”

It’s not the best day for flying drones. But with each test, Johnston is gaining more experience and collecting valuable information on how the technology could help scientist study the coastal environment.

“It makes our research more efficient and safer.  We can sample in between the scales that we normally have, from satellites looking down verses walking around and making samples on the ground.  This fits kind of in the middle.”

While satellites are only useful during the day, drones could be operated at night. Additionally, unmanned aerial systems are safer and more cost effective than using airplanes or helicopters for research.  Johnston says scientists that study storm surge and coastal erosion could use drones to survey the coastline more often and better document the changes.

“Those people working on fisheries to be able to understand fish habitat.  Oyster beds and oyster reefs, the effects of storms on them.  There’s a huge number of things that are being done at both IMS and at CMAST at the NC State lab that would benefit from this technology.”

Johnston and a team of researchers study seals in Canada using the eBee drone. The technology is useful for counting their populations without disturbing them.
Credit Julian Dale - Duke Marine Lab

For now, Johnston and three other scientists involved with testing the drones must adhere to strict FAA guidelines, limiting flight below 400 feet and within visual line of sight.  But last month, Johnston says the Duke Marine Lab applied for Section 333 exemption, which would allow them to fly drones in the National Airspace System.

“The things that we’re doing have all been previously exempted, the same aircraft, the same techniques.  We have a slightly different reason, research and education.  But all of those are critical to making sure unmanned aerial systems are incorporated properly and safely into the airspace. So we suspect the FAA will be really happy to get our exemption and that allows us to start doing things and start providing feedback on how it goes.”

If the exemption is approved, Johnston says they’ll begin work on mapping marsh areas and tracking how they change with the seasons and developing techniques for finding stranded animals along the shoreline.

“We want to start working with sea turtles, to be able to do at-sea surveys with sea turtles and looking for stranded turtles.  Working with NOAA and the State with those things.  And then also really simple things like everyday flights here from the Marine Lab to be able to do a time series to look at change in the Bird Shoals right across from the Marine Lab.  Yeah, a whole bunch of things.  A lot of opportunity.”

photo of Azores coastline from the "Race For Water" research drone
Credit Dave Johnston - Duke Marine Lab

Currently, Duke Marine Lab is involved in research using drones to document marine debris on beaches around the world, through a project called “Race For Water.”  Johnston hopes to apply the same technique to measure the impact plastic waste is having on beaches in North Carolina.  They also hope to monitor seal habitats and count their numbers from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras later this year.

The Duke Marine Lab should know by mid-July if their exemption is approved.  In the meantime, an unmanned aerial systems workshop is planned at the coast June 29th though the 30th that will focus on marine science applications that employ drones and a participant driven exploration of desires, expectations and concerns about creating an unmanned aerial system in the community. 

“We’ve invited all of the science partners at all of the science institutions in the region, we’ve also invited all the agencies, all the federal and state agencies that deal with natural resource management to come together and kind of help us scope out and guide the development of a drone facility at the Marine Lab and something that we hope would form the backbone of a broader, sort of development of that kind of capacity here in our region.”

The two day June workshop takes place at the Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island in Beaufort from 9am to 5pm.