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Search for sea debris will be on autopilot


An unmanned aircraft with a 7-foot wingspan will be dispatched to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the fall or spring to search for drifting marine debris.

The electric-powered craft will transmit digital video footage back to a research ship. The ship will then pull nets and other junk out of the ocean before it snags on coral reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is paying for the prototype flying camera, in hopes it will help reduce entanglement of critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles.


image courtesy NOAA

Tim Veenstra, president of Airborne Technologies Inc., launches the Malolo 1 on a test flight at Schofield Barracks. His firm has a $100,000 contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to design two unmanned aircraft systems for mounted cameras.*

By Diana Leone

A new tool for wildlife conservation flies to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as soon as next month in hopes of saving the lives of endangered animals.

The Malolo -- Hawaiian for flying fish -- is an unmanned aircraft with a 7-foot wingspan that can carry a camera or other equipment on flights from a host ship.

The 10-pound craft's first assignment will be to help the research ship Oscar E. Sette locate clumps of marine debris in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

The Malolo's camera will send streaming video back to the Sette, pinpointing debris within a one- or two-hour flight range of the ship.

The Sette, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel, then will collect the debris.

Saving critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles from drowning in marine debris is the chief motive for the effort. Almost all of Hawaii's green sea turtles lay eggs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and monk seals give birth there.

There is a slim chance the Malolo will go to work on an October marine debris removal voyage, said Rusty Brainard, chief of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fishery Science Center's coral reef ecosystem division. But because of details that need to be worked out, a March cruise is more likely.

Alaska-based Airborne Technologies Inc. is NOAA's contractor to design and build the prototype aircraft, which is made of foam core, carbon fiber, some fiberglass and Kevlar, the tough material used in bulletproof vests.

ATI President Tim Veenstra worked several years with NOAA on airplane-mounted surveillance techniques to find "ghost nets," so called because they keep fishing long after they are abandoned at sea.

The Malolo project seeks to downsize the aerial survey until it becomes "cheap" -- perhaps as little as $15,000 per aircraft.

Bud Antonelis, NOAA's protected-species chief for the Pacific islands, hopes that the Malolo can be used to count monk seals and sea turtles on remote islands and atolls. He expects the device will bring lower cost and higher accuracy than the sporadic counts by people in boats or walking beaches with binoculars.

When the Malolo was given a test flight at Schofield Barracks last week, "it performed above our expectations," Veenstra said yesterday.

The agency wants the craft "to accomplish a variety of missions, from at-sea marine debris detection, to surveillance for enforcement purposes, to protected species surveys, to mapping," said Andy Collins, monument education and technology coordinator.

The main reason Airborne Technologies is working on the contract is that it hopes to eventually sell its technology for wildlife conservation or other uses that cannot afford the million-dollar price tags of more sophisticated military unmanned aircraft systems, Veenstra said.

The contract with Airborne Technologies "is less than $250,000, but even at that level it is not a moneymaker for them," Collins said.


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