Daytona Beach, Florida – First, an unmanned aerial vehicle system operated by a team at Embry-Riddle Aviation University, a drone, began looking beyond the line of sight for endangered sea turtles.
Thanks to the first “beyond line of sight” (BVLOS) exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Embry Riddle’s Turtle Tech team members are able to fly fixed-wing Centaero aircraft further offshore. Built by Censys Technologies Corporation, the durable Sentaero is equipped with sensors, cameras and collision avoidance systems to ensure safe movement in offshore airspace.
This work is part of a collaborative project carried out by the Breberd Zoo with the support of Northrop Grumman. The goal of this project is to learn more about sea turtle reproductive behavior by capturing images of individual animals and leveraging artificial intelligence to identify them by species, gender, and shell patterns.
To find more turtles, it is essential to fly further offshore beyond the visual line of sight. Keith Winsten, executive director of Brevard Zoo, said finding underwater sea turtles on the beach is not easy. “I also don’t want to get close to them by boat,” he added. “Drones that can fly at higher altitudes do not disturb sea turtles, and it allows us to study migration and breeding habits that may be key to protecting these animals. “
This is an important goal for nature maintenance researchers, as Florida plays a huge role in the world’s total sea turtle population. The east coast of the state is the world’s number one nesting site for loggerhead turtles. Giant leatherback turtles, green turtles, rare Kemp ridley turtles, and hawksbill turtles also nest on the Florida coast. Most species are endangered.
In May, the test flight on Melbourne Beach, Florida went smoothly, and Sentaero soared 390 feet above the turquoise waters, said Dr. Nickolas “Dan” Macchiarella, a professor of aeronautical science. Then, in June, the Embry Riddle team flew the aircraft BVLOS two miles offshore, testing a new camera lens. “There were multiple turtles in the water,” says Macchiarella. “Currently, we are improving the payload image capture capability of the aircraft to automatically detect and identify sea turtles.”
“We believe this is Embry Riddle’s first FAA research and operational BVLOS exemption,” Macchiarella said. “Being able to fly the aircraft safely beyond the operator’s line of sight will allow us to investigate a wider area more effectively.”
Three recent graduates, Patrick Hunter, Jose Cabrera, and Adrian “Imai” Bates-Domino, have completed professional training and certification to ensure safety during the drone’s latest test flight. So, we took Embry Riddle education one step further. At Melbourne Beach, many additional students, recent graduates, and Censys Technologies staff helped with communication and operations. Others piloted a quadcopter-type drone that monitors Sentaero.
Centaero took off and landed vertically. In the meantime, he flew in the coastal environment next to the Barrier Island Sanctuary and carried the payload of two red-green-blue cameras with polarizing filters. The drone was able to click on the photo every second and recorded an image identified as a turtle. Researchers are in the process of analyzing their results.
Neural networks (essentially a set of algorithms that learn over time) help the project’s artificial intelligence system correctly identify sea turtles. That aspect of the project is overseen by Dr. Ilhan Akbas, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
Meanwhile, Dr. Patrick Currier, a professor of mechanical engineering, teaches students about the physical development of payloads and their integration with Sentaero. The payload system combines a high-resolution global shutter camera with an NVIDIA Jetson NX processor to support in-flight neural network detection. Currier explained that this is an important feature of BVLOS operation due to the limited radio bandwidth.
Dr. John M. Robbins, an associate professor of aeronautical sciences who directs Embry-Riddle’s TurtleTech project with Macchiarella, noted that the initiative provides hands-on vocational training for multiple students. For example, Melbourne Beach test students interacted directly with UAS leader Censys Technologies. Censys Technologies was founded by Trevor W. Perrott, a graduate of Embry-Riddle, who is currently President and CEO.