LA PUSH — Standing in the stern of the RV Tatoosh, Nick Morgan held aloft what looked like an oversize model airplane. As the propeller started to whirl, Morgan cocked his arm and flung the plane as if he were throwing a spear.
The 4-foot-long aircraft banked gracefully and spiraled up into a cloud-streaked sky. Within seconds, it blended in among the targets it was dispatched to spy on: cormorants, gulls and murres wheeling above the tiny islands on the Washington coast where the birds nest and rear their young.
The miniature plane is a drone, a Puma AE, part of a $350,000 unmanned aircraft system. Once used mostly for surveillance and reconnaissance on the battlefield, small, unmanned aircraft like the Puma are quickly catching on in the civilian world — with scientists like those aboard the Research Vessel Tatoosh last month leading the way.
The team of federal biologists spent two weeks flying fixed-wing Pumas and mini-helicopters over remote beaches to test their usefulness for seabird and marine-debris surveys.
“They’re wonderful tools,” said Matt Pickett, who helped coordinate the project for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “They have the potential to change the way scientists do marine monitoring.”
Already home to a thriving drone industry led by Boeing subsidiary Insitu, the Pacific Northwest is also a hot spot for putting the devices to work in the service of science. Researchers in Washington are using them to monitor restoration of the recently un-dammed Elwha River. Scientists from Oregon State University are flying drones over potato fields this month to see if thermal sensors can identify ailing plants early enough to save them.
Drone-mounted cameras have also helped biologists identify habitat for endangered pygmy rabbits, while fish managers use mini-choppers to map chinook salmon spawning sites on the Snake River. Projects on the drawing board include the use of drones for avalanche and snowpack surveys and glacier monitoring.
Though some residents on the Olympic Peninsula were unhappy to have their turf invaded by tiny aircraft, the scientific use of drones hasn’t yet drawn the same type of privacy concerns that forced the Seattle Police Department to warehouse its unmanned aircraft. Several states, including Idaho and Montana, enacted restrictions this year on the use of drones for law enforcement or to spy on people.
“For things like surveying eagle nests and trumpeter swans and vegetative analysis, I would say 99 out of 100 people have supported what we’re doing,” said Mike Hutt, who manages 36 drones — one of the largest civilian fleets — for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of the Interior.
Since 2004, cameras, heat sensors and other instruments have shrunk dramatically while navigation and control systems have improved. Coupled with the development of smaller, more affordable vehicles, those advances are helping fuel a science rush, Hutt said.
Unmanned-aircraft manufacturers are also courting new customers as the U.S. pulls back from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Everybody is happy to sell you stuff,” said Juris Vagners, emeritus professor of aeronautics at the University of Washington.
NOAA’s operations on the Washington coast this summer are part of a two-year project to evaluate the costs and benefits of unmanned aircraft. “We think it’s going to save us money and have much less impact on the environment,” said coordinator Todd Jacobs.
The craft seem particularly promising for hard-to-reach places and jobs that are tedious or dangerous, and can be operated for about a tenth the cost of a manned helicopter, he said.