Anchorage Daily News
A drone aircraft is flying surveillance over the Bering Sea this month as scientists test its prospects for documenting little-studied ice seals at the southern edge of the ice pack.
The data-gathering flights are examining whether unmanned aircraft could help estimate the population and distribution of bearded, spotted, ringed and ribbon seals, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last year, NOAA determined that ribbon seals should not be listed as an endangered species, but the agency is now gathering information to evaluate whether spotted, bearded and ringed seals should be. The ice seals of the Bering Sea in spring have rarely been studied, and there are no current estimates on their numbers, according to NOAA.
Scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory have been aboard the McArthur II since May 13, tagging and studying seals and evaluating the University of Alaska Fairbanks-owned and operated drone.
"Ice seals are distributed throughout the Bering Sea, and it is very difficult to survey them," said Robyn Angliss, deputy director of the laboratory. "Right now, we do not have the capability of surveying the entire ice seal range because it's just too big of an area to possibly cover with manned aircraft."
The ScanEagle drone, which was north of St. Matthew Island on Tuesday, has a wingspan of just over 10 feet, weighs less than 27 pounds and can fly for 20 hours or more at between 50 and 75 knots, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
It is catapulted from the vessel and is recaptured in midair when hooks mounted on the airframe at the end of its wings snag a line hung over the water by a crane.
NOAA planned to conduct long-range surveys of seals but had to scale back to a five-mile radius from the ship after the Federal Aviation Administration expressed concern the drone, which flies at an altitude of between 300 and 700 feet, could pose a danger to other small aircraft, Angliss said.
"The result is this operation has become an extended engineering exercise," Greg Walker, manager of the Poker Flat Research Range, where the drone is based, said in an e-mail from the McArthur II. "We are having a good cruise and many issues are being resolved and proven; however it's just not scientifically valuable data since we cannot sample a significant area of the Bering Sea as needed by NOAA."
FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said his agency has been working with others trying to develop a protocol for operating unmanned aerial systems, though he didn't know when it would be in place.
"Our main concern is conflict of airspace use, simultaneously," Fergus said. "That's our big thing -- keeping aircraft separated properly, obviously, for safety purposes."
Drones could be an effective way to study ice seals, which may be vulnerable to losses in sea ice, and to learn about their sensitivity to climate change, according to NOAA. Drones could also help scientists study other marine mammals, as well as sea ice conditions and to collect information on weather conditions.
"Using traditional, manned aircraft to survey all of the sea ice habitat in Alaskan waters would be challenging, expensive and potentially dangerous," Michael Cameron, NOAA's lead scientist on the expedition, said in a statement.
UAF bought its first robotic drone in 2006 to be used for a range of purposes including wildfire mapping, oil pipeline security and studying large mammals. It now has four, said Walker, who is one of two UAF scientists piloting the drone until the operation ends June 11.
By Tuesday, the craft had racked up 30 good flight hours on seven sorties, he said. Heavy fog has been persistent.
"The weather out here has been very poor for flight," Walker said. "I guess we should have expected this given it's the Bering Sea."