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Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Wildlife Research – pros and cons

Aircraft Systems in Wildlife Research

The reason that I want to address this now is that Telemetry Solutions has a GPS wildlife tracking system that is compatible with small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) usage. For many there could be a real advantage to using an aircraft systems in wildlife research, especially with small animals that are low to the ground and wearing a GPS collar. Our new product has a very long range autonomous data transmission feature to a base station. The base station collects data without a human operator and weighs less than 100 grams. Many sUAS systems can lift the base station and carry it for a relatively extended period of time. But how, exactly, can this help you? Since the data transmission method is by radio, a line of sight from the GPS device to the base station must be established in order for a data transmission to occur successfully. The simplest use for the sUAS is to lift the base station to gain elevation over the subject carrying the GPS device. With a proper line of sight and all conditions optimized for data transmission the maximum download range is 25 kilometers. The base station downloads data from all of your GPS devices within range and it does so automatically. Even very small animals can carry the GPS device associated with this download range. So sUAS can gain height over the animal and help to maximize data download range to save you time and effort in the field.

However, in The United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has created rules governing the commercial use of sUAS. You may argue that wildlife research is not commercial. The opposing categorization (from the FAA point of view) is someone who is flying a sUAS as a hobby.

Two of the most obvious limitations created by The FAA rules are that you may operate the sUAS only within visual line of sight and you may not operate it more than 400 feet above the ground or 400 feet above the platform from which you are operating. In addition you must obtain a remote pilot airman certificate with a sUAS rating or be directly supervised by a person who holds the certificate. Within class B,C,D and E airspace you must notify ATC (Air Traffic Control) about your activity. All of this and you may not operation in a TFR area (Temporary Flight Restriction) and these can pop up anytime at anyplace so you need to be aware of them. A TFR can be created due to a wildfire or security event or other special situations. You may not fly the sUAS over a person that is not associated with your task.

On top of all of this you have to learn how to operate a sUAS and it is easier for some than others. Don’t expect to just grab and go and not lose your sUAS. In the sUAS world there is a saying that you should not “purchase a system that you are not willing to watch fly away never to be seen again.” In my personal experience youth plays some role in this ability. On my first day as an operator, my sUAS spent the night in a pine tree….high up in a pine tree. Much younger folks in my office took to it like a duck to water.

There is another option. That is to hire a company that has the sUAS and certifcations and will fly their sUAS for you at your sight. However expect to pay a lot of money for this service, it would probably cost less to just hire a manned aircraft.

Hopefully with this new information you can start to decide if aircraft systems in wildlife research is right for you. Either way, Telemetry Solutions can offer you custom equipment whether you’re on the ground, in the air, or underwater.

-Quintin Kermeen


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