Is there a right way to view whales and other marine life with a drone?

Alicia Amerson

Alicia AmersonToday’s guest believes there is, and she’s making it her mission to spread the word.  Alicia Amerson is a marine biologist, drone pilot and instructor, and marine conservation and policy consultant. She is also the founder of AliMoSphere, a start-up company dedicated to protecting our ocean heritage with science, partnerships and technology. In this edition of the Drone Radio Show, Alicia talks about efforts to educate pilots on how best to fly drones so as not to disturb or cause harm to natural wildlife. She also talks about the beneficial applications of drones in studying or collecting data on marine mammals. And she’ll talk about the highest cause of mortality for biologists in the field and how drones can reduce that risks.

In This Episode

  • Introduction. Alicia Amerson is the founder of AliMoSphere, a start-up company dedicated to protecting our ocean heritage. Alicia wants to develop best practices for pilots who may fly drones in conservation areas or near marine mammals. As a child, Alicia was interested in working in marine biology and her interests led her to several ocean research studies, whale research and eventually a degree in marine biology. Those experiences eventually led her to a investigating how drones could be integrated into an eco-tourism and science/policy career.
  • Avoidance Behavior. There are indications that in certain circumstances, drones can contribute to avoidance behavior of marine mammals. When marine mammals react negatively to drones (or other disturbances), they can become separated from their group or pups. They can wander off to unsafe places. Birds can be flushed out of their nests, potentially dropping their unhatched eggs. Avoidance behavior is well documented in the marine biology fields, but most drone operators are not aware of the implications.
  • What Drone Operators Should Keep In Mind. If you happen to see marine mammals, Alicia advises not to fly over them and make sure you stay away from bird populations. You may run across stranded sea lion pup, and the drone could scare away its mother, causing a permanent separation. Be careful not to make any sudden moves with your drone.
  • The Idea. Alicia first saw a drone while participating in a whale watching study. She had wanted to use drones in her own research, but was unsure how best to safely integrate it into the practice. There was also a general understanding within the science community that drones were not regarded as a sound research tool. There were concerns that drones would cause avoidance behavior or disturbance to mammals. But after participating in a whale watching study in Australia, where drones were used, she learned firs-hand, how drones could be safely used and provide value to researchers.
  • Best Practices Guidelines. AliMoSphere is working on best practices guidelines for drone operators who fly over conservation areas or encounter marine mammals while flying. Working with NOAA, Oceana, National Marine Sanctuary, research universities, whale watching companies, AliMoSphere has compiled draft guidelines. In November 2017, AliMoSphere will host three seminars with key stakeholders to begin a dialogue on the guidelines, which ultimately will lead to a consensus on the right best practices to include. The hope is to have a draft for public review by the end of 2017.
  • Long Term Benefits. Alicia discusses some of the long-term benefits of using drones in the field of marine science, which include reducing or eliminating whale entanglements. There were more than 100 whales reported last year entangled, of which 71 of them were confirmed. It is extremely difficult to disentangle whales. Drones provide a way to see how the nets are tangled and the best place for crews to make a cut and free the mammals. Additionally drones can help researchers better understand individual and overall populations of marine mammals, as well as the overall health of ecosystems within our ports and various coastlines
  • AliMoSphere The Start-Up. Alicia talks about the idea behind AliMoSphere. She started working to develop a stakeholder group to develop the best practices, and through researching and working with various individuals and organizations, she saw an opportunity for women to get involved in the effort. There was also an opportunity to promote workforce development. The company is self-funded and looking for funding partners to help move things forward.
  • Partnerships. AliMoSphere has developed a partnership with Oceana and DART Drones to develop conservation class for drone pilots. The class will provide a pathway for those interested in becoming more involved in conservation efforts. AliMoSphere is also working with Drone Logbooks to develop conservation logbooks that will include best practices and project planning for flying in coastal or ocean habitats.
  • Society of Marine Mammology. In November, Alicia presented at the Society for Marine Mammalogy on whale entanglement policy objectives and the status of efforts to produce best practices for using drones.
  • Reducing Risks. The number one cause of mortality to biologists is conducting aircraft surveys, so there is an opportunity to do surveys with unmanned aerial aircrafts. It’s really important to protect all of these amazing people that are working in this industry. Drones also offer the opportunity for researchers to conduct studies that previously would have been too expensive or dangerous.
  • Lessons Learned. Alicia really appreciates the interest and support her company has generated by people interested in conservation and marine biology. She advises others to go with their dreams, do the best they can and know that failure is part of the process of building a business. Listen to what people are saying and strive to fill the gaps, because ultimately, a business should fill a gap, not create something that’s not needed. She observes that when you’re on the right path all the doors will open for you.
  • Closing. Alicia believes that it takes a lot people from all backgrounds to have a positive and lasting impact on marine conservation. Drone pilots are great stewards of the technology, and she challenges them to become a better steward for the environment and consider the environment they are flying to reduce any impact to the animals or habitat that they live.

Mentioned Linke

Whale Image attributed to Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit in Perth, Western Australia and Dr. Fredrik Christiansen