A rare Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle builds her nest. National Park Service

FL - Sea Turtle Conservation Flies Forward Thanks to New Drone Project

To better understand the behavior of multiple sea turtle species along Florida’s Space Coast, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has teamed up with aviation leader Northrop Grumman and the Brevard Zoo to launch a drone-based surveillance effort.

The Turtle Tech project, leveraging two different unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), will provide crucial conservation insights as well as paying jobs for students, said John M. Robbins, associate professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle.

“Other researchers have used unmanned aircraft for sea turtle surveillance, but we’re fine-tuning the operations and computer visioning systems to identify individual sea turtles – including their species, gender and even unique markings,” Robbins said. “Students will have hands-on opportunities to work on flight operations, aircraft modifications, payload integration and much more. This project is a win-win for sea turtles and students.”

Sea Turtles on the Space Coast

“Florida plays a critical role in sea turtle conservation,” said Roddey Smith, a chief engineer and research fellow at Northrop Grumman. The state’s eastern coast is the most popular loggerhead nesting site in the world. The Space Coast also draws green sea turtles, massive leatherbacks, the Kemp’s Ridley and, a bit further to the south, the Hawksbill. “About 25% of the world’s overall sea turtle population is born here in Florida,” Smith noted. “Florida has outsized importance in maintaining different sea turtle species.”

Although sea turtles may lay 100 or more eggs in each nest, estimates suggest that only one in 1,000 to 10,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood. Most species are threatened or endangered by natural as well as human threats – from raccoons to artificial lighting on beaches, coastal armoring such as seawalls, coastal erosion, beach driving, fishing, climate change and other factors. The very rare Kemp’s Ridley is now critically endangered. In Volusia County, for example, only 14 Kemp’s Ridley nests have been documented since 1996, and 10 of those nests were laid by three turtles.

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