ANCHORAGE - A drone aircraft is flying surveillance over the Bering Sea this month as scientists test its prospects for documenting little-studied ice seals at the southern edge of the ice pack.
The data-gathering flights are examining whether unmanned aircraft could help estimate the population and distribution of bearded, spotted, ringed and ribbon seals, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last year, NOAA determined that ribbon seals should not be listed as an endangered species, but the agency is now gathering information to evaluate whether spotted, bearded and ringed seals should be. The ice seals of the Bering Sea in spring have rarely been studied, and there are no current estimates on their numbers, according to NOAA.
Scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory have been aboard the McArthur II since May 13, tagging and studying seals and evaluating the University of Alaska Fairbanks-owned and operated drone.
"Ice seals are distributed throughout the Bering Sea, and it is very difficult to survey them," said Robyn Angliss, deputy director of the laboratory. "Right now, we do not have the capability of surveying the entire ice seal range because it's just too big of an area to possibly cover with manned aircraft."
The ScanEagle drone, which was north of St. Matthew Island on Tuesday, has a wingspan of just over 10 feet, weighs less than 27 pounds and can fly for 20 hours or more at between 50 and 75 knots, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
It is catapulted from the vessel and is recaptured in midair when hooks mounted on the airframe at the end of its wings snag a line hung over the water by a crane.
NOAA planned to conduct long-range surveys of seals but had to scale back to a five-mile radius from the ship after the Federal Aviation Administration expressed concern the drone, which flies at an altitude of between 300 and 700 feet, could pose a danger to other small aircraft, Angliss said.