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A New Perspective on the World's Marine Life Researchers and students at the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory fly drones to offer distinct views of sea creatures and coastal ecosystems around the globe.

Part One

Images courtesy of the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory

Text by Amanda Solliday

Video by Alexis Owens

Flying at Scientific Frontiers

Just four years ago, scientists at the Duke Marine Lab began planning studies that would use drones to gather images of wildlife and their habitats. The unoccupied aircraft would allow the lab to track marine animals with greater efficiency and lower cost than ever before, but the laws about flying drones for research in the United States were still uncertain.

"There wasn't really a clear pathway for us to use drones for commercial purposes here in the U.S. And so, we were able to work in other countries that had rules that we could navigate."

-David Johnston, associate professor of practice of marine conservation and ecology

The team's earliest drone work included counts of sea turtles in Costa Rica and grey seals in Canada, as the researchers tried to understand more about the abundance and health of these populations. As time progressed, the team launched the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing lab in the Nicholas School of the Environment to advance the use of drones in marine science and conservation.

David Johnston, associate professor of practice of marine conservation and ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment, prepares to launch a research drone in Antarctica. (Photo by Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory)

The program quickly evolved to include surveys of more marine species and their habitats. The engineers on the team began to try new types of aircraft, rigged up with different kinds of sensors and cameras to collect additional information about the animals and their environments. The lab also developed faster and more accurate approaches to analyzing the large amounts of data collected.

To-date, the drone lab has logged more than 2,750 flights and 550 hours of flight time.

The team's research portfolio now includes whales and penguins in Antarctica, endangered birds in Indonesia and hoofed mammals in Argentina, to name a few. And now, with clearer laws back at home, the lab is also studying coastal erosion and the effects of hurricanes in North Carolina.

"Pretty much every time we sit down at a table and review what we've accomplished, we always find another application of this technology for marine science and conservation. That keeps us inspired.”

-David Johnston, associate professor of practice of marine conservation and ecology

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Duke Marine Lab's Stunning Journey to Study Antarctic Whales (Nicholas School of the Environment)

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Amanda Solliday
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Images courtesy of the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory

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