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Turtle Trackers Fly Drones Out Of Sight

by Ginger Pinholster, Vice President, Communications, Embry-Riddle

In a first, an uncrewed aircraft system, or drone, operated by an Em-bry-Riddle Aeronautical University team has begun searching for threatened and endangered sea turtles beyond the visual sight lines.

Thanks to a first-ever “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) waiver from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Turtle Tech team members from Embry-Riddle can fly their fixed-wing Sentaero aircraft farther offshore. Built by Censys Technologies Corporation, the long-en-durance Sentaero is equipped with sensors, cameras, and a collision avoidance system that allow it to navigate offshore safely.

The work is part of a collaborative project conducted by Brevard Zoo with the support of Northrop Grumman. The goal of the project is to learn more about sea turtle reproductive behaviors by capturing images of individual animals and leveraging artificial intelligence to identify them by species, gender, and shell patterns.

Flying farther offshore, beyond visual sight lines, is vital to finding more turtles. Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten noted that sea turtles in the water aren’t easy to spot from the beach. “You also don’t want to approach them with a boat,” he added. “A drone that can fly at a higher altitude does not disturb sea turtles, and it allows us to study migratory and reproductive habits that could be key to protecting these animals.”

That is a critical goal for conservation researchers because Florida plays an outsized role in the world’s overall sea turtle population. The state’s eastern coast is the top nesting site in the world for loggerhead sea turtles. Huge leatherbacks, green sea turtles, rare Kemp’s Ridley turtles, and the Hawksbill also nest off Florida’s shores. Most species are threatened or endangered.

In May, test flights at Melbourne Beach, Florida, went smoothly, with the Sentaero soaring 390 feet above the turquoise sea, said Dr. Nickolas “Dan” Macchiarella, professor of Aeronautical Science. Then in June, the Embry-Riddle team flew the aircraft BVLOS, two miles offshore, while testing new camera lenses. “There were multiple turtles in the water,” Macchiarella noted. “We are now refining the aircraft’s payload image-capturing capability to automatically detect and identify sea turtles.”

To ensure safety during the drone’s latest test flights, three operators—recent graduates Patrick Hunter, Jose Cabrera, and Adrian “Imai” Bates-Domino—took their Embry-Riddle education a step farther by completing specialized training and certification. At Melbourne Beach, many additional students, recent alumni, and Censys Technologies staff supported communication and operations. Others piloted a quadcopter-type drone that kept an eye on the Sentaero.