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Scientist: Cedar Key sea grass healthy

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Drones tested in CK skies

By Mark Scohier

A state research scientist says a recent sea grass study from the skies of Cedar Key was meant to focus on the logistics of using unmanned aerial vehicles, rather than addressing specific problems with marine plant life in the area.
“There’s no concern,” said Dr. Paul Carlson, a researcher with FWC’s research institute in St. Petersburg. “The reason we flew was because the sea grass levels were so healthy.”
Carlson said the project, which ended Nov. 16 after five days of flying a small commercial UAV known as the BAT4 from the Cedar Key Airport, was mostly to figure out the feasibility of using the aircraft in future studies, especially how the flight of such vehicles work with regard to Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
“In that regard, it all worked out perfectly.”
Carlson said Cedar Key was an ideal location, being both close to the water and having an airport not in frequent use. Images taken by the UAV’s special cameras through colored filters confirmed that in at least one area of the Cedar Keys, a 3.3-square-mile section near Dead Man’s Key, sea grass is doing well.
The project got underway about a year ago, he said, when FWC, also partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, got funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to look at ways to use UAVs in a scientific setting. Six other projects were funded with the money, Carlson said, though no other sea grass studies are being done with UAVs.
The unmanned aircraft have a few advantages when compared to other methods, he said. They are able to stay out longer, are less prone to pilot error related to repetitive tasks—such as the grid flown near Dead Man’s Key— and keep humans out of potentially deadly situations, such as the collection of data from hurricanes.
Still, Carlson said the technology is young and is often more expensive in terms of money. Plus, he added, the FAA has concerns about such vehicles colliding with manned aircraft. The UAVs probably won’t be used much until they are equipped with sense and avoid technology, he said.
“I don’t think we’re far from having that.”
Carlson said there are no current plans to do future sea grass studies with UAVs in the Cedar Key area.