Embry-Riddle, Verizon Partner to Use Drones for Marine Mammal Rescue

Embry-Riddle assistant professor of Aeronautics David Thirtyacre led a research project to assist marine biologists in identifying the best unmanned aircraft system to use to study sea animals. (Photo: Verizon)

In an effort to safely and humanely rescue marine mammals, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has partnered with marine biologists and a Verizon drone-management platform to monitor animals in distress using unmanned aircraft systems. 

A video produced by Verizon features Gennifer Brookshire, a marine biologist and FAA-certified drone operator, who explains that attempting to reach marine mammals in need can sometimes disturb them, whether rescuers approach from the shore or by boat. Seals in the video are shown entangled in fishing line, while others in need of medical treatment are carried off the beach in stretchers. 

Drones, however, can be used to assess similar situations without worsening the animals’ distress. That’s where Embry-Riddle comes in to help, said David Thirtyacre, assistant professor in the College of Aeronautics Worldwide Campus. 

Eagle researchers were asked by the  marine biologists to determine what type of unmanned aircraft would be most useful for marine mammal rescues while creating the smallest disturbance to animals being monitored, and to nearby wildlife. 

“The biologists came to us and said, ‘What would be the best drones to use? Which drones would allow a close enough approach to study the wildlife without the noise causing stress or anxiety?’” Thirtyacre said, adding that no research had previously been conducted on the acoustic signature of consumer drones amid the ambient noise of the ocean. 

Embry-Riddle is also involved in a project to better understand the behavior of multiple sea turtle species along Florida’s Space Coast, teaming up with aviation leader Northrop Grumman and the Brevard Zoo to launch a drone-based surveillance effort. 

In the project with Verizon, the research team — which also included Dr. Joe Cerreta, assistant professor of Aeronautical Science, and Patrick Sherman, Worldwide Campus Department of Flight adjunct faculty member — used Skyward, a drone-management system owned by Verizon, to assess the decibel and frequency levels at which drones operate in the marine environment. Thirtyacre said Skyward was utilized from the planning stages, through safety assessments and actual flights. Afterward, all the data from the test flights was downloaded into Skyward and analyzed. 

“Now we can supply not only the marine biologists with which drones are the quietest and will have the least impact on the sea animals, but we’re also going to make the data available to the government and agencies that issue permits, so they have a better idea of what aircraft work best in these types of environments,” Thirtyacre said, adding that marine biologists Sarah Callan and Brittany Arivizu also participated in the project. 

The video premiered on Up To Speed, Verizon’s internal news channel, and was shared on Twitter and YouTube

College of Aeronautics Dean Kenneth Witcher said the partnership between Embry-Riddle and Verizon provides a unique opportunity. 

“Through partnerships with companies like Skyward/Verizon, we are able to discover the value of remotely piloted aircraft systems in very innovative ways from a professional aviation perspective, leveraging our experience and safety culture,” Witcher said. 

Brookshire said the data will also be shared with other scientists and rescue organizations, so they can incorporate drones into their efforts and get more information on how to help the animals. 

“Monitoring seals is just the beginning,” she said.

About the Worldwide Campus Department of Flight

The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide Campus Department of Flight, within the College of Aeronautics, provides students with the knowledge, skills and judgment necessary to succeed in their careers, by supplementing classroom instruction with innovative unmanned assets, world-class training and expert oversight on in-the-field research. Curriculums incorporate state-of-the-art flight systems, sensors and software to offer students hands-on experience and scenario-based training. Students also have access to collaboration opportunities with industry leaders, which helps sustain the high level of standardization and professionalism demanded by the industry.

Posted In: Aviation | Research | Uncrewed Systems