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Research using Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

Can I use UAS to conduct scientific research on protected species?

Yes, as long as you have the proper permits and authorizations.

Will I need a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and/or the Endangered Species Act?

Yes, if your research activities will be directed at marine mammals or sea turtles at an altitude below 1000 feet.  To apply for a permit, use the APPS online system.  If you have questions or are unfamiliar with our permits, contact the Permits and Conservation Division at 301-427-8401.  

If I already have an MMPA and/or ESA permit will I need to modify it?

Yes, you will need to apply for a modification to your permit if you want to use UAS.  All UAS operations will be considered aerial surveys.  The modification may be minor or major, depending on what your permit already authorizes.  You can use the APPS online system to request a modification.  For questions specific to your permit, contact your permit analyst via email or at 301-427-8401.  

What information specific to UAS should I provide in my permit application or modification request?

In addition to general questions related to aerial surveys, we’ll want to know:                       

Steller sea lions at Cape Wrangell, photographed from a hexacopter

Photo Credit: NMFS Alaska Fisheries Science Center; Permit No. 18528

Katie Sweeney piloting hexacopter during test flight with Van Helker assisting.

Photo Credit: NMFS Alaska Fisheries Science Center

Killer whales photographed by a hexacopter in Canada

Photo Credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Permits: Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada; Fisheries and Oceans Canada No. 2014-5 SARA-327


NOAA Corps Lt. j.g. Tanner Sims launches a Puma as part of the Hawaiian unmanned system research project

Photo credit: NOAA

What other permits/certifications do I need?

UAS are considered aircraft and fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  Therefore, you must be compliant with FAA requirements for UAS.

Current FAA regulations divide UAS operational use into three categories:

  1. Civil (non-governmental/commercial),
  2. Public (governmental), and
  3. Model aircraft (recreation/hobby). 

The FAA considers scientific research as either public or civil depending on the individual and/or purpose of operating the device.  It does not fall under the recreational/hobbyist category.  Please note that a vast majority of our permit holders will fall under civil operators.  In rare cases (such as discrete NOAA funded projects), civil operators may request FAA approval through NOAA; however, this is the exception, not the rule.

In addition, you may be required to obtain additional Federal, State, or local permits depending on where you will be working (e.g., National Marine Sanctuaries, National Parks).  It is your responsibility to obtain these permits and comply with any other laws or regulations.  Some areas, such as National Park Service-controlled lands and waters, have banned the use of UAS except for limited purposes.

Do I need to have these licenses in place in order to receive my MMPA and/or ESA permit or modification?

No, we can process and issue permits for takes associated with research involving UAS without the FAA permit(s) in place.  However, note that personnel who require State and/or Federal licenses to conduct activities authorized under an MMPA and/or ESA permit(s) (e.g., veterinarians, pilots) must be properly licensed when undertaking such activities, in accordance with our regulations.  

Therefore, please be aware that your NOAA Fisheries permit requires that you obtain any applicable FAA permit, certification, and/or license required for use of the UAS prior to operating it under an MMPA/ESA permit.

NOAA Fisheries scientists using UAS for protected species research

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last updated September 10, 2015