Drones flying as eyes in the sky for whale entanglements

Drones embark on new kind of whale watch

A drone captured this image of the private research vessel Aloha Kai in close proximity to a humpback whale in late February, according to an official with the nonprofit Oceans Unmanned. Drones are set to be deployed to help locate and monitor humpback whales entangled with fishing gear and other ocean debris. Oceans Unmanned photo

The Maui News

Drones are now helping to locate and monitor humpback whales entangled with fishing gear and ocean debris, according to an announcement from Oceans Unmanned Inc., a nonprofit organization that facilitates the use of unmanned technologies to protect the ocean and coastal marine environment.

Oceans Unmanned reported it was in a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, with support from DJI and DARTdrones. The partnership formed to provide aerial support using small drones for large whale entanglement response efforts off of Maui.

“The freeFLY program provides training, equipment and management oversight to a network of local, Maui-based drone operators that are available to support the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network,” which is coordinated by the whale sanctuary, the announcement says.

“The Network’s goals are to safely free endangered humpback whales and other marine animals from life-threatening entanglements, while also gathering valuable information that will reduce entanglement threats in the future,” it says.

The work is authorized under a permit with the NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

The addition of aerial imagery from on-scene, vessel-launched drones will provide responders improved “situational awareness” and increased safety for both the animal and responder, the announcement says.

“Cutting free a 45-foot, 40-ton free swimming animal is not an easy task; it can be dangerous,” said Ed Lyman, NOAA large whale entanglement response coordinator. “Drones may likely play an important role as they are a valuable tool toward reducing the risks involved in this type of effort.”

He reminded people that, without a permit, they are not allowed to come within 100 yards of an endangered humpback whale.

Matt Pickett, director of Oceans Unmanned, said: “While these off-the-shelf systems can be relatively easy to fly while on land, operating off a small boat and providing the responders the imagery they need in a timely manner can be challenging. The freeFLY program will ensure all operators are well trained and equipped and operate at the highest level of safety and professionalism.”

DJI, the industry leader in easy-to-fly drones and aerial photography systems, is donating Phantom 4 Pro systems and accessories to the entanglement response program. In addition, DARTdrones, the nation’s leader in drone training and consulting services, has provided online remote pilot certificate test preparation classes for experienced candidates to comply with required Federal Aviation Administration training standards.