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Drones like this one could be used to enforce marine regulations in the future. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment Inc., www.avinc.com
Drones like this one could be used to enforce marine regulations in the future. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment Inc., www.avinc.com

Maritime Drones on Patrol?

When you are on the water without another soul in sight, you may feel like you’re alone in your maritime world. But look up. Unmanned Aircraft Systems – popularly known as drones – may be watching your every move from above.

According to a report issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a Puma AE drone that is capable of capturing both video and still images and can be launched and recovered from vessels was being tested in the Dry Tortugas recently. The intended use for the drone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was to “map corals, locate turtles and track migrating birds.” While the testing was ongoing from aboard the NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries vessel Peter Gladding, it became evident to the officers aboard that this equipment would also work well as a law enforcement tool.

By the end of the six days test, two federal citations were issued. The first was for a dive operation conducted within the Tortugas North Ecological Reserve without obtaining the required permits, and the second citation was issued to a sailing vessel “actively fishing illegally within the Tortugas South Ecological Reserve.”

There were rumors floating around many chat rooms that citations had been issued for “fillet and release” actions where undersized fish were caught and filleted on board, but these proved to be untrue.

The citations that were issued may be the first and last of their kind, at least in Florida. Florida Senate Bill 92 (passed unanimously, 117-0, and awaiting the governor’s signature in late April) would restrict the use of drones for law enforcement. The new legislation would require that a warrant be obtained before collecting evidence, and it would restrict the drone use to “prevention of imminent danger to life” including kidnapping and missing children and “serious damage to property.” There is an exemption in the legislation for terrorist attack.

So next time you’re out on the water and think that you’re alone, look up – you may have company.

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