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Pilot project's aims are less risk to humans, less cost to agency.

SALEM — The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to purchase drones next year to test how well the aircraft collect data on fish and bird populations.

Employees of the agency hope drones will help them collect better information, at less physical risk and a lower cost.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission signed off on nearly $50,000 for the project at a meeting this month. The project cost approved by the commission included two “quadcopter” drones, plus equipment and training for agency staff.

At the moment, the agency does not have the option to hire a private contractor to conduct drone surveys. Government agencies can obtain permits to fly drones from the Federal Aviation Administration, but private companies and individuals cannot currently obtain FAA approval to fly outside of specific test ranges.

ODFW plans to test the drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, to conduct surveys of fall chinook salmon spawning and double-crested cormorant colonies along the coast. The state counts salmon nests, known as redds, to track the population and make management decisions, such as setting catch limits. The double-crested cormorant population is being monitored because of the bird’s effect as a predator on fish. According to an agency report, employees will also document any bird responses to the drones.

“We think this is going to become a really useful tool,” said Dan Avery, the agency’s coastal implementation coordinator. “It gets our employees out of a real high-risk situation.”

ODFW Interim Director Curt Melcher also said at the meeting earlier this month that the danger associated with traditional helicopter and airplane surveys was a major reason to consider switching to UAVs. The agency stopped conducting its own aerial fish surveys in 2013, after two biologists and a pilot were injured in a helicopter crash while conducting a fall chinook salmon spawning survey along the South Umpqua River.

In fall 2014, ODFW hired a contractor to do the chinook salmon aerial surveys. Avery said the agency will continue to use private contractors for aerial surveys for now, because employees need to complete the pilot project before they will know if it makes sense to use drones as a permanent replacement.

“Right now, we’re just doing it to see the quality of data we can acquire,” Avery said.

The agency previously did some preliminary UAV salmon spawning survey tests through a partnership with the Oregon State University College of Forestry, because the university already has FAA authorization to fly drones.

Avery said ODFW has a history of working with private and public landowners to obtain written permission to access land for traditional fish and wildlife surveys, and the agency also did so when it tested the UAVs with OSU researchers. ODFW will continue to only test drones in locations where the agency has written permission from the landowners.

“We knew that some people are a little uncomfortable with the thought of UAVs being up in the air,” Avery says.

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