Drone flights begin over the bay

12/12/2013

Morning gusts hitting Sacramento Landing on Wednesday herded three employees from the United States Geological Survey into the back of a truck and delayed drone flights over Tomales Bay for a scheduled waterbird survey. With little else to do (besides chomping on oyster pizza from last night’s dinner at Osteria Stellina) they discussed the particular joys and difficulties of piloting unmanned aircraft systems. The two drones ready for flight were donated from the Army and after almost a decade of use in training grounds or Arab deserts or wherever else they’ve flown, the battery cycle was limited. There was the clunky, gasoline-powered T-Hawk on the pavement resembling an upturned bucket with arms, and the Raven, akin to a child’s model airplane only with bulletproof Kevlar armor. The drones aren’t ideal for surveying wildlife—they can vibrate too much for clear pictures or make too much noise and disturb the birds—but they usually get the job done. Earlier in the week, they flew in a grid pattern over the water, capturing pictures at 1/2000 of a second with resolution high enough to pick up individual blades of grass. Biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service will use the pictures to count the number of grebes, double-crested cormorants, egrets, gulls and loons splashing through the bay. Earlier in the week, the drones also snapped pictures of two harbor seals floating on their backs, nervously eyeing the sky.