Turtle trackers fly drones out of sight | Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
First, an unmanned aircraft system, or drone, operated by a team from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University began searching for threatened and endangered sea turtles beyond visual lines of sight. .
Thanks to a first-ever “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) waiver from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Turtle Tech team members at Embry-Riddle can fly their Sentaero aircraft further offshore. Built by Censys Technologies Corporation, the long-endurance Sentaero is equipped with sensors, cameras and a collision avoidance system that allow it to navigate safely in offshore airspace.
The work is part of a collaborative project led by Brevard Zoo with support from Northrop Grumman. The goal of the project is to learn more about the breeding behaviors of sea turtles by capturing images of individual animals and leveraging artificial intelligence to identify them by species, sex and carapace patterns.
Flying further offshore, beyond visual sight lines, is key 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 capable of flying at higher altitudes does not disturb sea turtles and allows us to study the migratory and reproductive habits that could be essential for the protection of these animals.”
This is a critical goal for conservation researchers, as Florida plays an outsized role in the world’s sea turtle population. The east coast of the state is the best nesting site in the world for loggerhead sea turtles. Huge leatherback turtles, green sea turtles, rare Kemp’s Ridley turtles and the Hawksbill also nest off the coast of Florida. Most species are threatened or endangered.
In May, test flights at Melbourne Beach, Florida, went well, with the Sentaero hovering 390 feet above the turquoise sea, said aeronautical science professor Dr. Nickolas “Dan” Macchiarella. Then, in June, Embry-Riddle’s team flew the BVLOS aircraft two miles offshore while testing new camera lenses. “There were several turtles in the water,” Macchiarella noted. “We are currently refining the aircraft’s payload image capture capability to automatically detect and identify sea turtles.”
“We believe this is Embry-Riddle’s first research and operational BVLOS waiver for Embry-Riddle,” Macchiarella said. “Being able to fly the aircraft safely beyond the operator’s visual line of sight will allow us to more effectively survey a wider area.”
To ensure safety during the drone’s test flights in May, three operators – recent graduates Patrick Hunter, Jose Cabrera and Adrian “Imai” Bates-Domino – took their Embry-Riddle training a step further by undergoing training and specialist certification. At Melbourne Beach, many additional students, recent alumni, and Censys Technologies staff supported communications and operations. Others flew a quadcopter-like drone that monitored the Sentaero.
The drone took off and landed vertically. In between, it flew over the near-shore environment next to the Barrier Island Sanctuary, carrying a payload of two red-green-blue cameras with polarized filters. Able to click a photo every second, the drone recorded all the images it identified as turtles. The researchers are currently analyzing their results.
A neural network — essentially a series of algorithms that learn over time — helps the drone’s artificial intelligence system become better and better at correctly identifying sea turtles. This aspect of the project will be supervised by Dr. Ilhan Akbas, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
Meanwhile, Dr. Patrick Currier, professor of mechanical engineering, guides the students through the physical development of the payload and integration with the Sentaero. The payload system combines high-resolution global shutter cameras with an NVIDIA Jetson NX processor to support in-flight neural network detection. This is a key capability for BVLOS operations due to limited radio bandwidth, Currier explained.
Dr. John M. Robbins, an associate professor of aeronautical science, who along with Macchiarella leads the Turtle Tech project, noted that he provided hands-on training for several students. For example, Melbourne Beach test students had direct interaction with UAS leader Censys Technologies — a company founded by Embry-Riddle alumnus Trevor W. Perrott, who is now chairman and CEO.
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