Drones watch over WA marine life

By AAP with AG Staff 27 September 2010
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Unnmaned military aircraft are being used to track whales and dugongs in Shark Bay.

UNMANNED AIRCRAFT ARE flying around Shark Bay in Western Australia’s mid-north coast in a trial to see whether military-style drones can help monitor and conserve marine mammals.

In an Australian first, Murdoch University’s Dr Amanda Hodgson will investigate whether Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are a useful alternative to manned aircraft for surveying marine mammals.

“During this first trial we’ve focused on dugongs and collected images of them with various camera adjustments,” Amanada says. “We have been flying the UAV at various heights and air speeds to assess the best way to use this technology.”

One benefit of UAV is that they eliminate human risk. “We don’t have to have observers flying low over large areas of ocean in small planes,” says Amanada. “In addition, they should allow more accurate detection, location and identification of species.”

New survey capability

Amanda has been given more than $400,000 from the Australian Marine Mammal Centre to work with Boeing’s Insitu Pacific conduct surveys of dugongs and humpback whales and improve the UAV camera system.
“Large areas of the Australia coastline have never been surveyed for dugongs or humpback whales and UAVs capable of flying long distances may allow us to access these remote areas,” she says.

These UAV could operate up to an altitude of 6,096 metres for up to 28 hours.

Dave Holley coordinator for the WA Department of Environment and Conservation’s (DEC) Shark Bay Marine Park says the project is a step forward for conservation.

“Although these are early days, this project is great for conservation and it will help with DEC’s ongoing obligations for monitoring and conserving marine mammals such as the internationally recognised populations of dugongs and dolphins in Shark Bay,” he says.

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