Folks near Chapman Point may notice some strange mechanical objects hovering, swooping and diving around the beach from June 12 through 14.

Don't be alarmed -- it's just a couple of drones.

No, not that kind.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration will be using small unmanned aircraft systems to survey Cannon Beach's nesting seabird colonies.

These remote-controlled planes will film and photograph the breeding populations of common murres, cormorants and gulls.

Afterward, scientists will examine the high-definition footage and still images, count all the visible birds and try to estimate the colonies' sizes, said Shawn Stephensen, the wildlife biologist at the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a fish and wildlife organization.

As the pilot on the ground maneuvers the aircraft, the cameras will send live video feeds to a co-pilot and scientists standing nearby.

The pilot will respond to commands like, "A little to the left!" and "Descend a few feet!" to position the camera exactly where it needs to be.

"Once the frame looks good, (my copilot will) simply say, 'Take a picture.' I select the shutter button, and the image is taken," said Jason Mansour, deputy chief for unmanned aircraft operations with NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center, in an email.

The machines

Mansour will pilot an MD4-1000 Quadcopter, which has a body roughly the size of a basketball and softball-sized cameras that deploy from the base.

The research team will also test the RQ-20A Puma AE, a larger, more airplane-like device with a 9-foot wingspan.

Both the Quadcopter and the Puma will launch from the state-owned beach and fly over fish and wildlife-protected property, Stephensen said. They will not fly over private residences, he added.

Each flight is expected to last approximately 15 to 20 minutes, according to Mansour.

The study is another in a series of trial projects to test the usefulness of deploying unmanned aircraft for wildlife research.

"We've been exploring unmanned aircraft for the past two years and their potential to augment, supplement and replace existing aerial research efforts," said Matt Pickett, the aviation operations coordinator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Unmanned vehicles present scientists "with the ability to obtain environmental intelligence in a whole new way," Mansour said. The machines are "showing great promise as research and environmental observation tools."

A similar trial project studying double-crested cormorants will soon be conducted at Bolon Island near Reedsport.

'Cheaper, greener, safer'

Traditionally, scientists have studied seabird colonies using helicopters and manual cameras, a method that poses risks for researchers -- and for the birds.

"See, normally, I get in a helicopter, and I fly along the coast and take photos of the bird colonies. Then we count the birds in the photographs to get an idea of their (population) size," Stephensen said. "But it's also very dangerous getting in the helicopter ... If the helicopter stops working correctly, or falls out of the sky, I could get hurt."

Noise has also been an issue.

"Marine mammals and seabirds can be quite sensitive to fast movements and loud noises," Mansour said. "If they become disturbed, your survey will not be accurate."

The typical helicopter for studying wildlife can only drop to about 1,000 feet above the colonies without doing damage, Stephensen said. Any closer, and the birds start to fly away from their nests and the eggs they're incubating, leaving their offspring vulnerable to avian predators.

Unmanned aircraft, which are quieter than vehicles, can approach the birds at a closer range with greater stealth.

Less noise means less disturbance, which means more accurate animal surveys, Mansour said.

Plus, using helicopters for scientific studies is "very expensive," limiting the fish and wildlife service to a single flight a year, said Roy Lowe, the project leader at the refuge complex, which started monitoring seabird populations along the coast in 1998.

"One of our taglines is, we believe (unmanned aircraft systems) are cheaper, greener and safer for resource monitoring," Pickett said.

Getting results

If the unmanned aircraft do the job right, researchers will be able to conduct multiple fights every year, providing more accurate and comprehensive documentation of seabird population levels throughout the breeding season.

"This will give us the chance to see how populations change through the summer," Lowe said. "It could open up a lot more avenues for research and monitoring."

The team hopes that the unmanned aircraft will take pictures similar to, or better than, the ones Stephensen has shot from the open door of helicopters.

"If they are of the same quality, we'll probably expand, using unmanned aircraft systems" for animal photographic surveys in the future, Stephensen said.

After the project is finished, the fish and wildlife service will enter the results into a database that will be available on the refuge complex's website.

"I will probably publish a report, which would go into a scientific journal, but that's a ways down the road," he said.

NOAA plans to use unmanned aircraft to study monk seals in the northwest Hawaiian Islands in June, Pickett said. "We're hoping to do some leatherback turtles work in Monterey (Calif.) in September."

This story originally appeared in Cannon Beach Gazette.

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