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Drones in France

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Scientists turn ALBATROSSES into surveillance drones to help track illegal fishing boats in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean


A team of researchers from the University of La Rochelle in France have converted albatrosses into de facto surveillance drones as part of a project to gather data on illegal fishing boats in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.


The team travelled to popular albatross nesting locations at Amsterdam Island and Kerguelen Island in the Indian Ocean north of Antarctica, and attached small sensors to 169 albatrosses in a procedure that took about 10 minutes per bird.


The sensors weigh 65 grams, or around a seventh of a pound, and were equipped with a GPS receiver, a radar antenna, and a satellite communications monitor to track various boat communication systems.


The devices were each powered by a small lithium battery that maintains a charge through a small solar panel. The albatrosses covered more than 18 million square miles between East Africa and New Zealand, gathering data from more than 600,000 GPS locations.


In all, they detected more than 5,000 radar signals from 353 different vessels. More than a third of the boats detected by the birds’ sensors couldn’t be identified. 28% had turned off their official communication systems, suggesting the possibility they were trying to avoid detection or were illegally fishing in areas they shouldn’t have been.


By tracking radar signals, researchers were able to locate specific vessels, then check VMS and AIS records for ships officially documented as having been at or around those specific GPS coordinates. If radar signals suggested a boat was in an area where none was identified in VMS or AIS regions, they considered the possibility of illegal fishing or exchange of potentially illegal catches between vessels.


The team is currently working on expanding the scope of the project and hopes to conduct future missions in Hawaii, the South Atlantic Ocean and more territory around New Zealand.

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