Mystic, Conn. (February 12, 2019): Over the last few years, they have become one of the most wished for gifts during the holidays. Drones, as Drew Prindle of digitaltrends.com says, “have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon.”
More than four years ago, on CBS Networks “60 Minutes,” Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos indicated “that drones would be delivering goods to people’s homes within a half hour of ordering.” According to Market Watch, that reality is still years away. And, while Dominos delivered the first-ever pizza by drone in 2016 in New Zealand, automated delivery as the ‘norm’ is still rather idealistic.
But unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, could revolutionize the ability of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor and understand the global environment. And, Mystic Aquarium species ambassadors are helping along the way.
In Alaska, NOAA Fisheries has been surveying northern fur seal pup populations since 1963. While important for the protection of the species which is classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List, current practices are labor intensive, time-consuming and, of course, expensive.
NOAA Fisheries, with the help of NOAA’s UAS Program Office, NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) and National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS) are developing a UAS-based approach for conducting northern fur seal abundance surveys. Mystic Aquarium, Aerial Imaging Solutions, and GeoThinkTank are also part of the collaboration.
“Species ambassadors are critically important for so many reasons,” said Dr. Allison Tuttle, Vice President of Biological Programs for Mystic Aquarium. “Not only do the unique experiences of aquarium settings allow guests to develop a deeper appreciation for the species and the conservation efforts and help to spark inspiration as stewards of the environment, they also provide unprecedented exposure for researchers whose work could ultimately have a strong impact on efforts to conserve the species in the wild.”
According to a recent NOAA publication, this approach to surveying has been successful as a means “to supplement annual Steller sea lion abundance surveys since 2014. Given the size and relatively more distinct coloration from their background, using a high-resolution mirrorless camera has worked well for capturing images of Steller sea lions. The challenge with developing a similar approach for northern fur seals has been deciphering small black fur seal pups from the black boulder substrate common in the Pribilof Islands; making northern fur seals much harder to count in images alone.”
Among other goals, NOAA hopes with a more robust UAS to be able “to evaluate imaging capabilities of a thermal sensor for northern fur seals, and conduct an on-the-ground assessment of the feasibility of multi-spectral imaging for distinguishing northern fur seals from their background.”
A spectral measurement baseline is key to the researches success. NOAA Fisheries and GeoThinkTank visited Mystic Aquarium to collect that all-important data. GeoThinkTank collected spectral measurements using a handheld spectroradiometer (loaned by NESDIS) of Mystic Aquarium’s resident northern fur seals, both male and female of varying ages.
“Collecting measurements like these is a normal procedure for plants and other substrate but as far as we know, has never been done for wildlife,” said Francis P. Padula, Founder & CEO of GeoThinkTank LLC.
“Mystic Aquarium allowed us the opportunity to collect more measurements of northern fur seals, that are far more cooperative than those we encounter in the wild,” said Katie Sweeney, NOAA Fisheries Biologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, “and in a more controlled environment to help us streamline our methods for the harsher field conditions in Alaska.”
The spectral measurements will be used to model a virtual northern fur seal rookery environment to run various aerial survey simulations.
“If optimal bands are identified and multi-spectral imaging is found to be effective, this will guide our next steps towards developing a custom UAS-mounted sensor,” added Sweeney.
Thermal sensor and aerial surveys conducted earlier this year will soon be compared to the counts of our traditional ground-survey estimates. For more information this NOAA research project visit, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/new-drone-technology-could-revolutionize-marine-mammal-monitoring
ABOUT MYSTIC AQUARIUM
Mystic Aquarium, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, is counted among the nation’s leading aquariums with more than 300 species and an extensive collection of marine mammals, including New England’s only belugas. Mystic Aquarium has been a pioneer in offering guests a variety of up close encounters with a wide range of marine animals. The mission of Mystic Aquarium is to inspire people to care for and protect our ocean planet through conservation, education and research. Mystic Aquarium receives major support from The Coca-Cola Company, Foxwoods Resort Casino, Resorts World Sentosa and United Technologies Corporation. Learn more at MysticAquarium.org.