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Sep 03 2021

How NOAA Uses Drones to Study Everything from Seals to Hurricanes

Unmanned aerial vehicles have become integral parts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s technological arsenal.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is busy these days, tracking the formation and movement of powerful storms during another above-average hurricane season. NOAA’s mission goes far beyond telling the country when and where a tropical storm might hit, however.

“NOAA is in charge of studying everything, from up in the sky to down to the bottom of the ocean,” says Katie Sweeney, a biologist at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammal Laboratory.

For years now, NOAA has used unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones, to help it fulfill a variety of its missions, from forecasting weather to monitoring oceanic and atmospheric conditions and protecting fisheries and marine mammals.

The drones NOAA uses have become increasingly sophisticated, and the agency is using edge computing and the cloud to more efficiently gather, analyze and disseminate data that they collect in the field. NOAA’s drones also leverage artificial intelligence capabilities to better study hurricanes and keep track of populations of seals in Alaska.

NOAA Uses Drones to See Inside Hurricanes

Most of the drones used in the government have bene developed by the Defense Department and defense industry, and NOAA has been able to take advantage of some of those investments, according to Phil Hall, director of the uncrewed systems program in the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations at NOAA.

However, those drones are typically not tailored to NOAA’s needs, so the agency uses a “mix between specialized UAS that might be used to measure weather, or we’re also using a lot of commercial off-the-shelf, rather inexpensive systems and modifying those for NOAA uses,” Hall says.

“In some parts of NOAA, they have really exploded and have become a must-have technology,” Hall adds.

Joseph Cione, lead research meteorologist for NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory’s Hurricane Research Division, notes that scientists have long conducted manned reconnaissance of storms through old-school “hurricane hunting.”

However, drones can provide NOAA and other researchers with more detailed information that can help communities prepare for disasters. “We live in the boundary layer, we live low, we don’t live at 20,000 feet,” Cione says. “So, when storms make landfall, we want to know what the winds are doing right at that boundary layer.”

NOAA notes that the agency does not want to fly manned planes low, for safety purposes. Like the Navy, NOAA uses P-3 aircraft to fly into hurricanes. The Navy suggested to NOAA that it follows its lead and drop drones out of P-3 planes into hurricanes. “So we did, and it worked,” Cione says.

NOAA had “some great success” with this approach between 2014 and 2018, Cione says. The agency learned several lessons from using the drones, but because they were designed from the military, Cione wanted to design something from scratch. The drone would need to be sophisticated and intelligent.

“We have every intention of making these things artificial intelligence-driven,” Cione says.

DIVE DEEPER: Here are some best practices for drone technology innovation in government.

According to Cione, the AI-driven drones are not automated in such a way that they are dropped out of planes and then fly only one preplanned route. “Each storm is different, so that won’t work,” he says.

“As it’s flying, it senses what’s going on,” Cione adds. “It’s using its sensors, its machine learning, its artificial intelligence, understanding its environment, making decisions based upon the sensors and then going into the environment that we want it to go into.”

Such tools show the “potential for these systems to really leverage and increase our ability to get more data in these locations,” Hall says.

Those AI tools will enable NOAA to gain “situational awareness in a storm that is going to make landfall,” Cione says. That can help NOAA and state and local authorities evacuate communities with more precision. “You save lives,” Cione says.

Watch the full video to discover how NOAA is using drones to study seals and hurricanes.

Drones Help Keep Track of Seals in Alaska

Drones don’t just help NOAA study hurricanes. Autonomous drones in the marine environment can expand what the agency can do to study marine mammals, Hall says.

Some of the most successful systems at NOAA have been in the National Marine Fisheries Services, according to Hall.

“The imagery and the information that they get about the status and the health of the marine mammals is phenomenal,” he adds.

Traditionally, the way NOAA surveys northern fur seals is through a ground survey method called “shear sampling,” according to Sweeney.

Northern fur seals are small and black, and they live near boulders that are about the same size as they are. In shear sampling, researchers cut a small bit of fur on the top of the seals’ heads, revealing a bit of white underfur. That makes it easy to track seals from overhead, but the method is “quite costly” and involves up to 20 people working on the two islands for up to three weeks, Sweeney says. ‘

Now, NOAA is using drones to find more efficient ways of tracking seal populations. Sweeney says the drones NOAA will use will “collect an immense amount of imagery.”

“We’re hoping that we can develop a new sensor where we can try to make the fur seals pop out from the background,” she says.

Then, NOAA plans to use AI to “process that imagery and automate that process, because it wouldn’t be feasible to do that with the human eye,” Sweeney says.

Drones help NOAA gather more data for research and conduct its missions more effectively.

“It’s certainly going to be interesting to see what technology develops,” Hall says. “To collect more data is just incredible for these programs.”

Photo by David Hall