Environmental activists in the rough Antarctic seas have launched a new tool in the fight to stop a Japanese operation to kill hundreds of whales – remote-controlled drones.
Every morning for the past week, a battery-powered drone with a range of 300km (190 miles) has been launched from the MV Steve Irwin, which is attempting to disrupt the annual Japanese whale hunts in the waters off Antarctica.
"We first found the Japanese fleet when they were 28 nautical miles away," said Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international marine wildlife protection group based in the United States.
Subsequent attempts by Japanese whaling ships to block the anti-whaling flotilla and allow the whale factory ship Nisshin Maru to escape were foiled by the activists, who repeatedly launched the drone, which uses GPS co-ordinates and provides both video and still images to track the whaling ships.
"Our helicopter pilot, Chris Aultman, has been lobbying for this technology for the past two years and now that we have this 'eye in the sky' it makes it much harder for the whaling fleet to escape," said Watson in a telephone interview from the Steve Irwin. "The other day they switched back from east to west and we detected this with the drone."
Watson has 88 crew on three ships, two of which are equipped with drones. They act as spotters, finding the whalers in the vast expanse of ocean and allowing Watson's ships to home in on them.
Watson has embarked on his annual expedition to stop the slaughter of thousands of whales – the Japanese consider this to be scientific research while critics call it cruel and archaic. "Last year they had a quota of over 1,000 whales and only caught 16%. We saved at least 800 whales," said Watson, who has been known to ram the Japanese boats as part of his anything-goes tactics.
The advent of new technologies such as drones may finally put an end to the Japanese hunt, said Watson, who is also bringing publicity to the cause in Whale Wars, the Discovery channel documentary series that tracks the hunts: "Our goal is to bankrupt them and destroy them economically. Now that we can track them, it is getting easier."
Once exclusive to Israeli spy forces and the US air force, drones and other types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being sent on civilian missions such as crop inspections or marine mammal surveys. In April, drones hovered inside highly radioactive areas at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and recorded data from areas too dangerous for humans to enter.
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Federal bodies in the US, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), are scrambling to monitor the burgeoning industry. According to the Los Angeles Times, the FAA will issue proposals this month to clarify rules for the use of UAVs in civilian and commercial roles.
While drones used to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, some are now available for less than £500. The unit used by Sea Shepherd is a highly durable model known as the Osprey, which can run for hundreds of hours .
It was given to Sea Shepherd by Bayshore Recycling, a New Jersey-based solid waste recycling company committed to environmental protection. In addition to paying for the drone at an estimated cost of £10,000, Bayshore also paid for pilot training to run the remote control equipment.
"Everyone here at Bayshore is thrilled with the Sea Shepherd's news of not only saving the lives of many whales, but knowing our drone will continue to track the Japanese whaling fleet in this chase," said Elena Bagarozza, marketing co-ordinator at Bayshore.
Watson expects drones will be used to patrol environmentally sensitive areas ranging from the Galapagos Islands to other famed wildlife areas, including South Africa's Kruger National Park.
"There is huge potential and great value in this technology – for our expedition it is wonderful," said Eleanor Lister, 20, a Sea Shepherd crew member from Jersey, who spoke by satellite phone from aboard the Steve Irwin from a location that, she said, "was about 1,000 miles south-west of Australia".
She described the daily routine that begins when the ship's first mate holds aloft the Osprey drone, then tosses it into the headwinds. After tracking the Japanese whalers, the drone ends its mission as it homes in on the Steve Irwin and is flown into a thick net, where crew members inspect it for damage and download the video and photographs from the latest mission.
Despite severe weather in the Antarctic, the drone has flown dozens of flights and had no problems so far with ice buildup on the wings or trouble negotiating the gusty winds.
"The Osprey is comfortable in the wind and can handle 40 knots," said Jimmy Prouty, systems engineer at Hangar 18, the Kansas-based company that manufactures it. "This unit is waterproofed and has multiple security backups so that if it has problems or low battery it automatically returns to base."