NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!


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Looking for debris from the sky

By: Dianna Parker, Communications Specialist, NOAA Marine Debris Program

*JUNE 22 UPDATE - The test went as expected, despite rough seas and some cloud cover. We’re in the process of analyzing the results.*

This week, NOAA researchers will launch a Puma Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) to determine whether it can detect marine debris off the coast of Oʻahu. The test is one of NOAA’s efforts to identify effective technologies for locating marine debris at sea—including debris from the Japan tsunami.

During the test, NOAA staff aboard two vessels will have the UAS as well as debris of varying sizes, materials, and buoyancy, including fishing nets, wooden construction debris, small buoys, and large buoys. Researchers will place the debris in the ocean as a “control” and then launch the UAS over the different items—hoping that the UAS will identify the debris.

If all goes as planned, the UAS will then send information back to NOAA in the form of high-resolution imagery. Additionally, scientists will test seven different satellite sensors and their ability to detect debris’ location and shape.

Puma UAS over open ocean. Credit: Will von Dauster / NOAA

The operation is part of a larger, two-day demonstration by NOAA’s UAS Program to explore how this technology can enhance management of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. If successful, the UAS could be used in remote marine protected areas worldwide for activities such as marine wildlife surveys for sea turtles, monk seals and sea birds.

After the debris test, scientists will come away with a better understanding of which satellites sensors are capable of seeing different items under certain conditions, or if the satellites don’t detect the debris, we’ll still come away with equally valuable information on what works and what doesn’t.

There’s no one thing that’s going to give us a clear picture of the Japan tsunami marine debris, but this is one of the many tools we’re using to complete the puzzle. NOAA will continue to explore other detection technologies, modeling, monitoring, and voluntary at-sea observation in our efforts to protect our trust resources and coastal communities.

We’ll be sure to give an update after the test. Stay tuned.

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