LA PUSH, Clallam County, Wash. — 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.