Stephen Werndli, the enforcement and emergency response coordinator for the Keys’ national marine sanctuary, said the Pumas have many potential uses within the 2,900-nautical-square-mile protected site.
They include doing wildlife surveys, bird surveys at remote islands in the back country and visitor usage surveys; documenting marine and shoreline debris; assessing prop scar damage; responding to boat groundings; and monitoring of oil spills.
The eight-day test began in the Upper Keys on Sept. 14 and ended at the Western Dry Rocks off Key West on Sunday. It included videoing before-and-after pictures from a shoreline cleanup near big Pine Key on Saturday for International Coastal Cleanup Day.
The Puma also will be tested on Big Pine Key to survey endangered Key deer, by day and night. “At night, we’ll use infrared cameras,” Werndli said. “They might blend in during the day and be difficult to see, but you never know.”
During the first day of the test, the crew used the Puma for several types of surveillance at Rodriguez Key, a wildlife managed area of shallow flats popular with fishermen and birders east of Key Largo.
The Puma was used to collect information about the number of vessels using the site and for what purposes. It also took video of prop scars, flew over islands to view birds and discovered a big blue sewer pipe in about three feet of water.
“Somebody was probably using it there as a habitat to harvest lobster, which is illegal,” Werndli said.
Scott Donahue, science coordinator for the sanctuary, said the Puma could be useful for marine mammal strandings, particularly dolphins and pilot whales that strand en masse.
“It could fly around and help us find the stragglers of the group,” he said.
In the past, the sanctuary has had difficulty studying the magnificent frigatebirds, whose skeletal structures are too fragile to have tracking tags. “They are built to be light and long and gangly to catch the air currents,” Donahue said. “Using the unmanned aircrafts to fly where those birds are foraging might help us identify critical habitat.”
In Kodiak, Alaska, the Pumas have been tested in the search for marine debris traveling the currents after the massive Japanese tsunami 2½ years ago.
“In the Keys, it’s a great project to look for any nets that have gotten loose or drifted into the reef, so we can send a boat operator out there to remove it,” Sims said.
Werndli, whose job is to respond to boat groundings, sees the Puma as a much cheaper way to survey damage than hiring a contract pilot for $900 to $1,000 an hour.
The Puma also can help with developing a plan for the salvage operation of large boat groundings. “The charts might show it looks like it’s better to tow to the west, but up in the air it might show the shorter distance is to tow to the east,” Werndli said. “That could reduce the impact to the resource.”
And while NOAA is primarily looking at the Puma for science reasons, it could be used in law enforcement. During the test in the Dry Tortugas, the Puma was used to give officers information on what to expect when they board a boat.
“You will not always see an open deck on a center console,” Werndli said. “But if you are coming in on the port side and someone on the starboard is dumping illegal catch over the side, it could have a niche for law enforcement.”