KEY LARGO, Fla. (AP) -- Federal officials have been testing the use of drones for monitoring environmental conditions and wildlife in marine sanctuaries, including the one off the Florida Keys.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been testing the small, remote-controlled aircraft for 18 months. Last week, officials tried out the drones in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
During the test, a drone collected information about the number of vessels in shallow flats off Key Largo, video of damage left by boat propellers, and images of birds and a blue pipe that appeared to be an illegal means of harvesting lobster.
It's the second test in the Keys. Last year, a drone was tested in the remote Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West. Drones also have been tested in California, Georgia, Washington and Hawaii.
"It's amazing the view we can get from 200 feet above an island or reef," Lt. j.g. Tanner Sims of NOAA's Commissioned Officer Corps told The Miami Herald. "You can get a much better idea of how multiple things are interacting in that environment."
NOAA hopes the drones will work for science missions because they are cheaper, greener and safer than manned flights.
Stephen Werndli, the enforcement and emergency response coordinator for the Keys' sanctuary, said the drones could be used for wildlife surveys, the documentation of marine and shoreline debris, assessments of boat propeller damage and the monitoring of oil spills.
Werndli said the drones also will be tested on Big Pine Key to survey endangered Key deer.
"At night, we'll use infrared cameras," Werndli said.
Scott Donahue, science coordinator for the sanctuary, said drones could be useful when dolphins or whales 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 frigatebirds, whose skeletal structures are too fragile for tracking tags. Drones could help with that, too, Donahue said.
Frigatebirds "are built to be light and long and gangly to catch the air currents," Donahue said.