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Airship based sensors tracking right whales

27th March 2003

The Wescam electro-optical aboard the Skyship 600
airship and its associated network systems produced
this report on a right whale sighting very close to
shore (upper left quadrant) in northern Florida, and
within two minutes was able to post it on the Internet
to alert both commercial and military shipping to be
careful. Because of the accuracy of the system, the
specific pattern of coloration on the right whale's head
is easily identified, and can be use to track and
identify this particular whale. The coloration is
actually caused by parasitic barnacle-like crustaceans
called cyamids.

by Bill Swanson

A pair of unusual technologies came together over the Florida surf this winter to accomplish an unusual objective. State-of-the-art sensor technology being tested and used at NAS Pax River was married to airship (otherwise known as a blimp) technology that pre-dates the Civil War. The objective: high-tech whale watching.

The vehicle in question was a Skyship 600 airship, a sistership to the airship that was stationed at Pax River last fall just before the infamous Beltway Sniper case concluded. Arrangements to bring that airship here were made by Steve Huett, program manager for the NAVAIR Airship Advanced Development Program Office. Huett had several project goals, and one was to use the airship as a test bed for state-of-the-art sensor systems. When the sniper incidents erupted, he even got permission from the Pentagon to use the Skyship 600 and some sensor systems to help hunt down the snipers from the air. Before Huett's plan could be implemented, two sniper suspects were arrested before the airship and Huett's high-tech sensors could be deployed to show what they could do.

Huett and the Airship ADPO returned to their "regular" work installing and testing airship-based sensors, in this case the whale-watching project, another instance where unusual circumstances came together.

Because the North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species, federal law prohibits anyone from deliberately coming within 500 yards of the creatures. The right whale got its name during the age of whaling because of all the whale species, it was the best one in terms of producing oil, was a slow swimmer, and floated well when it was dead; therefore it was the "right" one to catch and kill, which is why it is now so endangered. According to Dr. Jim Hain, a biologist at Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute, there are estimated to be less than 325 right whales in the North Atlantic, and this small population produces about 11 calves a year.

The right whales spend the summer months in the North Atlantic off the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia and occasionally as far north as Norway, Iceland and Greenland. They migrate southward through New England waters in the fall, and spend the winter months off the coast of Florida and Georgia during the calving season.

During this time the right whales come so far inshore that they are often visible from the beach, Hain said. Studies indicate they seem to prefer a water temperature of about 61 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the temperature of the shallow coastal waters off Mayport and Jacksonville, Fla., home of a great deal of Navy shipping. And because they come in close, the right whales are not only a possible hazard to navigation, they are also in some danger, lolling about in a major sea-lane. Hence the Navy's heightened interest in their whereabouts.

The ADPO's airship-based sensors were used to detect whales from a "benign platform" at long range, capture their behaviour, and plot their location during an exercise conducted this past January. Images collected by the airship were transferred to a laptop data fusion processor by a network onboard the airship in "real time.” At the laptop processor the image data was transferred to a ground-based operations centre via cell or satellite phone data links. At the operations ground site the whale image and location information was used to create a digital image and map graphics that illustrated whale activities with time and location information. The graphics were then placed on a Web site for near real-time dissemination to Internet users. Marine mammal scientists were able to access the whale information in order to provide value-added analysis.

On one occasion a small craft was launched with a team of scientists in order to perform biologic sample collection based on whale identity and location information. On another occasion the location of a whale in the shipping lane was reported to the Coast Guard station in Mayport in order to prevent a ship strike.

To conduct that test, the Airship ADPO leased a Skyship 600 (sistership to the airship Huett had here) through the prime contractor, Science & Technology International, of Honolulu, Hawaii. The 200-foot long airship had two sensors on board, network interfaces, GPS receivers, a data fusion computer, cell and satellite data links, two pilots, and a crew of five, which included Hain, the marine biologist. The primary mission of the exercise was to test the effectiveness of the Littoral Airborne Sensor Hyper-spectral system to support the protection of whales by performing real-time detection through the water column.

A Wescam MX-20 electro-optic camera was also used to image the whales with a high-resolution visual and infrared imaging system. Wescam, a Canadian firm headquartered in the Toronto suburb of Burlington, Ontario, manufactures a variety of sensors, optics and camera systems for military, civilian and police applications, and is the manufacturer of the on-board camera systems installed on NASCAR Daytona 500 racecars and newsgathering TV station helicopters, among many other applications. A Wescam sensor similar to the MX-20 was recently mounted in the bomb bay of an S-3B Viking here at Pax River by the Mechanical Solutions Division of the Test Article Preparation Department in an otherwise unrelated project.

During the January test along the northern Florida coastline, the typical "slant range" of the Wescam from the airship platform to a right whale target was over a mile, and confirmed that the airship is a quiet and stable platform as compared to airplanes. The airship-based sensor platform did not modify whale behaviour when it was flown at an altitude of 500 to 2,000 feet above the ocean surface. The airship flew out as far as 22 miles from shore and up to 50 nautical miles from its home base at St. Augustine, Fla.

In contrast to the Wescam, the LASH sensor is a "nadir" system, which can only "look" straight down, thus it must be over the target. Using the two systems together, the Wescam could spot whales nearly 10 miles away, and bring the airship over the target at a high-enough altitude the whales were undisturbed. Then the LASH sensor could do its work.

The protection of marine mammals requires that new capabilities to find, track, and observe marine mammals be developed and implemented, Huett said. To this end, his team created an organization called the Airship Whale Search Network to test new ways and means for the Navy to mitigate the risk of harm to marine mammals by improving knowledge of whale migration patterns, life history, and related behaviors. This information will be used to improve the Navy's ability to make operational environmental readiness assessments to support fleet training exercises and operations at sea.

"In addition the approach is for the Navy to work hand-in-hand with the environmentalists so all agree on the data, hopefully making it easier to determine suitable areas for the Navy to train and test in," Huett said.

This Airship Whale Search Network exercise supported the work of Woods Hole biologist Hain, who was focused on the protection of the endangered right whale. The adult right whales average 45 feet in length with calves approximately 18 feet in length.

Using standard aircraft and shoreline counts, right whales are detected about 30 percent of the time at the surface. The LASH sensor aboard the Skyship 600 was able to detect whales at least 50 feet underwater and the Wescam sensor could detect whales at the surface many miles away, according to Don Statter, deputy program manager and lead for sensors and processors.

"We could see everything we needed to know about a whale from a mile-and-a half away," Statter said. "There was absolutely no reason to go any closer when using the Wescam sensor."

Information and imagery about the exercise is available at the Airship Whale Search Network's Web site, Among other things, the Web site shows more than a dozen photographs of right whales and their calves off the Florida coast, along with graphics displays of whale sighting positions and other data gathered by the LASH and Wescam systems.

Statter said the right whales are generally thought to be fairly sluggish and sedentary creatures, but that the Wescam sensors caught pictures of the right whales breaching and even leaping from the water, contrary to their reputation. The Wescam and LASH systems are so good that even from a mile and a half away, marine biologists were able to identify and track specific, individual whales based upon the imagery of the characteristic colour patterns on each whale's head, back, and fluke (tail).

Right whales are normally black (though they can turn a pale gray when sick or injured), but always carry tiny (less than an inch) crustaceans on their heads, called cyamids. These barnacle-like parasites, often referred to as "whale lice," infest most whale and dolphin species, and are usually white or yellow, and sometimes turn orange when the whale gets sick. Because each whale's pattern of cyamids is different, the whale lice act as "fingerprints," creating a distinctive colour pattern that allows specific identification. It was these colour patterns that the Wescam and Lash sensors were able to find, photograph and process at great distances.