OutLook for the Bay

Drones, Bots and the Bay

By Henry S. Parker

We are woefully ignorant of the marine environment. The seas cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface and make up 90 percent of its living space, but the vast ocean world is largely an unfathomable mystery to mankind.

Did you know that the world’s highest mountain lies mostly underwater? Mauna Kea, whose volcanic cone juts from the island of Hawaii, rises 32,000 feet from its ocean floor base. Mount Everest, 3,000 feet shorter, could be submerged in the Marianas Trench and still leave over a mile of water above its summit. Consider this: If the surface of the earth were completely smooth, the planet would be everywhere covered by an ocean more than a mile and one-half deep.

The seas house two-thirds of the earth’s known animal species, excluding insects. They are the source of most of the world’s oxygen. They supply much of our protein. They govern the earth’s climate. But they are an alien environment to humans and resist our efforts to explore them. They are deep, dark and cold. Submerged objects are subject to enormous pressure: only 65 feet below the water’s surface, a basketball would be squeezed to the size of a wiffle ball. Strong currents and monster waves threaten even the largest vessels. And the ocean world is vast. As one scientist put it, obtaining representative samples of life in the seas with conventional technology is a little like sampling the terrestrial world using a butterfly net towed by an airplane. Small wonder we know so little about the most important environment on earth.

But a revolution is underway. Conventional technology is being augmented by new tools and techniques, allowing humans to probe the expansive sea surface and forbidding depths without having to go there themselves. Drones and robots are leading the way.

A drone, a type of robot, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Its subsea equivalent is an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). Drones can be as large as a Boeing 757 or a submarine, and as small as a honeybee or a shrimp. We tend to think of their military and homeland security applications, but they are emerging as important environmental and agricultural tools. Far cheaper than manned aircraft, offering better resolution than satellite imagery and without risking human lives, they are effective platforms for science. They’re used to study endangered species like orangutans, discover polluters, map forests, monitor bird nesting sites, track animal populations and catch poachers. They are monitoring farm fields, herding cattle and remotely assessing the health of livestock. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even uses drones to remotely (and less dangerously) study leopard seals in Antarctica. As one NOAA scientist said, “A leopard seal is about a 1,000-pound animal … mostly teeth … ”

Drones have tremendous potential for marine research. They can monitor whale, manatee and shark populations; gather data on temperature, salinity, ocean chemistry and currents; help forecast storms; document pollution, track debris and monitor oil spills; and count fish. They are already being used in the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the U.S., comprising an area of nearly 4,500 square miles and holding some 18 trillion gallons of water. It’s only 21 feet deep, on average, but its murky darkness, soft sediments and extremes of weather and sea conditions make it a challenging environment for scientists to study. Though the estuary has been extensively researched, there is still much more to learn. Enter the drones.

The University of Maryland recently opened a drone test site on the Eastern Shore and successfully launched a UAV—a Talon 240 drone—with a 20-foot wingspan. Proposed uses include assessing fish populations in the Bay. The university plans to partner with the private sector to advance the technology and expand applications.

The potential marine research applications for drones are limitless—and mind-boggling. NOAA envisions using them for sampling the spume of blowing whales to assess hormone levels and genetic markers. Already large deep-diving UUVs are transmitting images and analyzing the chemistry of water from the greatest ocean depths. Soon these tasks may be performed by insect-sized drones. Far-fetched? Scientists recently created a tiny robot that mimics the actions of a water strider. Minnow-sized UUV scientific platforms could soon follow.

But significant hurdles stand in the way. Drone battery power is limited. The regulatory framework for their operation is far from settled, with issues ranging from privacy to safety. While less intrusive than conventional aircraft or direct human presence, drone noise could stress marine life. And the potential use of drones for nefarious purposes is a lurking concern.

Yet drones are here to stay and their applications in the Chesapeake region will expand. Will we soon see buzzing swarms over the Bay? Unlikely. But you may want to think twice about skinny-dipping in that supposedly private cove.


Henry is an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University. He previously directed research programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and taught marine sciences at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He can reached at [email protected]


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