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HomeNewsLocal newsProject Using Unmanned Aircraft to Map Coral Reefs Around Buck Island

Project Using Unmanned Aircraft to Map Coral Reefs Around Buck Island

Aerial photo of Buck Island Reef National Monument off St. Croix shows the area on the West Beach off-limits to drone flights to protect the Lesser Tern. (Submitted photo)

Beginning on Monday and continuing through Sunday, a team from the University of Southern Mississippi and the Nature Conservancy are collecting high-resolution imagery in and around the waters of Buck Island Reef National Monument.

The team is using small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, commonly referred to as drones, to collect data, according to a news release from the Christiansted National Historic Site and V.I. National Park. The collected data will contribute to several research projects, generating 2D seafloor mosaics and 3D bathymetry – or underwater topographical maps – in shallow water (five meters or less) environments.

These maps will be used to identify and inventory individual coral colonies within the reefs of these waters. The project team will be on-site coordinating all boat and UAS operations. The drone activities will be conducted only during daylight hours, within a safe and legally required distance, or line of sight, of the UAS pilot. The UAS will be launched and recovered from the island, the news release said.

The project team will steer clear of the West Beach area to avoid interfering with nesting Least Terns and their habitat in those areas. The UAS operations will be conducted throughout the shallow water area of the National Monument. Once airborne, the UAS will operate exclusively between 200 and 400 feet above the water surface, presenting no danger to boating, snorkeling or other activities on the land or waters within park boundaries, the news release said.

The Park Service said that except for takeoff and landing, the UAS when in operation is very quiet and should not be noticeable to others involved in recreational activities. The takeoff and landing sites will be selected to be as far from sensitive sites and park visitors as practically possible. UAS operations will be conducted from 6 to 9:30 a.m., prior to the arrival of most park concession vessels and/or in the late afternoon, and from 3 to 6:30 p.m. – after prime visitation hours are over, to avoid conflicts with visitor recreational activities. This mission complies with Department of Interior Aviation policy and the UAS operator understands that operations will be conducted in accordance with the approved Project Aviation Safety Plan.

This UAS project is being conducted under Research and Collections permit: BUIS-2021-SCI-0006 and was approved after compliance review with the National Park Service to ensure no impact to our visiting public or wildlife.

Recreational drone use, including launching, landing, or operation, is prohibited in National Parks. All data collected by the project team will be provided to NPS, including maps detailing several critical resource needs.

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