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DOI drone order creates confusion for Cape Cod shark researchers

DOI drone order creates confusion for Cape Cod shark researchers

The Department of the Interior’s drone order, which temporarily halted all non-emergency unmanned aircraft systems fleet operations, creates confusion for shark researchers in Cape Cod who use drones to spot and study sharks along the coastline. The Cape Cod National Seashore is administered by the National Park Service, which in turn is an operating unit of the United States Department of the Interior.

DOI drone order creates confusion for Cape Cod shark researchers

The Cape Cod Times reports that when state Division of Marine Fisheries senior scientist Gregory Skomal applied to the Cape Cod National Seashore last winter for a permit to use tethered balloons equipped with sophisticated DJI cameras as part of his great white shark research, he never thought a trade war and intellectual property fight with China would be the main reasons it was denied.

The decision shows the extend of the Department of the Interior’s drone order from earlier this year that apparently not only impacts drone use but also other forms of unmanned aviation such as balloons.

“We know that drones are a very mature solution for detecting sharks in shallow or deep water,” said Heather Doyle, co-founder of Cape Cod Ocean Community, which pushes for technological and other solutions to help detect great white sharks. “We understand the regulation, but we will pursue unmanned aircraft systems when permissible,” she said, according to the Cape Cod Times.

The regulation Doyle refers to is the order issued Jan. 29 by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that temporarily grounded the 800-drone fleet in his agency except for emergency use to “ensure the cybersecurity and supply of American technology of unmanned aircraft systems.”

Along with grounding the drone fleet of the Department of the Interior, the order prohibits the use of unmanned aircraft use by scientists and others who had a contract, grant or agreement with the Interior Department.

The camera-equipped balloons are produced by Miami-based Altametry. Joseph Ciampa, the vice president of the company said that they do use DJI optics and controller technology, however he stated that there is no risk of losing control of the cameras or balloons of the collecting of sensitive data by hackers since there is no wireless connections or satellite technology. He added that the company is moving away from Chinese-made components in favor of 100% American-made hardware and software.

According to the article, there still is confusion about whether the order affects people flying drones in the national park as part of a shark spotting program. As of 2014, the National Park Service has banned the launching and landing of drones within the boundaries of their parks. This leaves open the possibility of taking off from private property or from outside of the park. The Cape Cod National Seashore is a patchwork of largely private and municipal property. Once a drone is in the air, only the rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) apply and it is not explicitly prohibited to fly over National Parks.

“They don’t control the airspace. I checked with the FAA on that,” said Terry Burke, who works with Cape Cod Regional Technical High School students on a drone program.

Students and volunteers have been learning how to use drones for search and rescue operations as well as shark spotting missions. They have launched their drones from boats offshore and from private property.

Burke sees the DOI drone order as a political response.

He said: “Every handheld radio they use has Chinese parts.”

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Haye Kesteloo

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