By Tim Lucas

To help protect the world’s oceans, Dave Johnston and his team at the Duke University Marine Lab are taking to the skies with drones.

“Drones open new horizons in conservation and science by letting us see and do things we couldn’t otherwise, in places that may be too remote, dangerous, or difficult to access through other means,” says Johnston, executive director of the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory—more commonly called the Drone Center—which opened last year at the Duke Marine Lab.

“This is a technology that could revolutionize how we study and learn about the marine environment by allowing us to collect large volumes of data on demand, at finer scales and much lower costs than if we used satellites or planes,” he says. Johnston and his staff and students have deployed their fleet of remote-controlled drones—many of which they’ve built or customized themselves—on research and mapping missions over beaches, islands and coastal waters as far away as Costa Rica and Canada.

They’ve used the tiny aircraft to map and measure coastal erosion, analyze marine debris, count gray seals and sea turtles, map coastal vegetation, help devise new technologies to spot sharks in estuaries and along beaches, and collect mucus from whales’ blowholes as part of a study to gauge the health of endangered North Atlantic right whale populations in waters off the U.S. East Coast.

The data they collect holds the potential to yield lasting scientific and social benefits, from helping ecologists more accurately track the status of threatened species to allowing communities to more effectively monitor and mitigate threats from coastal erosion, sea level rise and pollution. Emerging projects are extending the center’s reach to the offshore waters of Antarctica and archaeological dig sites in Italy.

Closer to home, the center’s three-person staff uses drones as focal points in science outreach programs for area K-12 students. They test and develop new drone platforms and sensors that could help make the technology more affordable and adaptable, and train graduate and undergraduate students how to use the emerging technologies. This past summer, the center offered its first courses on the use of drones in marine science and conservation for advanced students, area scientists and conservation professionals.

“We’re the only university-based, marine-focused drone facility in the country that does such a broad array of things, and we’re probably still just scratching the surface of everything this technology could potentially let us do,” Johnston says.

Despite budget-busting price tags—a programmable drone equipped with highresolution cameras and imaging software can cost as much as midsize luxury car—the center has been able to support itself so far through small research and outreach grants and partnerships with a growing list of public and private collaborators.

Its partners and funders have included NOAA, the National Science Foundation, the National Park Service, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, the Nature Conservancy, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the North Carolina Department of Wildlife Resources.

“We’ve had a pretty good first year,” Johnston says with a smile, “for a center that was launched with a $20,000 seed grant and a converted boathouse as its R&D facility.” Now, he’s setting his sights even higher.

“There’s a big and largely untapped market for this type of facility. As word spreads about us, more and more people are knocking on the door,” he says.

“Given the breadth of marine science expertise concentrated at Duke, UNC, NC State and other research labs in eastern North Carolina, we believe there is significant opportunity for us to work together and establish our region as a global leader in the development and use of this new technology for research. We often refer to this region as Research Triangle Park East,” Johnston says, “and the sky’s the limit.”


An ardent believer in incorporating emerging technologies into his teaching and research, Johnston began exploring drones’ potential as a new tool in 2013.

“I’m kind of a gearhead so I’m naturally drawn to this stuff anyway, and when I saw the results emerging from using drones in precision agriculture and terrestrial ecological work in other countries, the light bulb went off,” he says.

After spending a year flying drones in other countries to establish capabilities, he began investigating the possibility of opening a drone facility at the Marine Lab.

But there were obstacles.

To fly drones for science in the United States, he needed to get clearance from the Federal Aviation Authority, which bans the commercial use of drones in U.S. airspace, including for academic research. Only researchers who have completed the lengthy and arcane process needed to receive a Section 333 Exemption from the FAA are cleared to fly.

He also needed funding—by all accounts, lots of it.

Basic, off-the-shelf drones can cost less than $1,000. But a programmable model equipped with high-resolution imaging systems could set his lab back nearly $20,000—or even maybe as much as $50,000, with all the bells and whistles. And he would need many of them, plus a sizeable budget for upgrades, repairs and maintenance. He also would need an electronics engineer, a program manager with aviation experience, and a facility big enough to house everything.

“In marine sciences, we often work on shoestring budgets, so the cost of opening and operating our own facility seemed prohibitive,” Johnston says.

Despite these roadblocks, he and his colleagues at the Marine Lab went ahead and applied for the FAA exemption. “There has been a lot of hand-wringing and frustrated talk by researchers and other potential commercial drone users about dealing with existing FAA regulations,” he recalls, “but we ignored all that and just pushed through the paperwork.”

The stars began to align.

In July 2015, using a $20,000 seed grant from Dean Alan Townsend, Johnston hosted a national workshop at the Marine Lab on the use of drones in marine science and conservation.

“We brought together more than 50 experts from government, corporations and universities to discuss what their priorities were and what type of help they needed,” Johnston says. “It allowed us to get a better idea of the market that existed for the type of services we could provide.”

Everette “Rett” Newton, a Beaufort native and retired Air Force colonel who had heard about Johnston’s work with drones, volunteered to serve as his lab’s drone program manager and help guide them through the lengthy FAA exemption process.

Julian Dale, an electronics expert with experience in marine environments, signed on as lead engineer.

John Wilson, the head of marine operations at the Duke Marine Lab and an experienced traditional aviator, agreed to serve as the facility’s chief pilot.

Cindy Van Dover, who was Marine Lab director at the time, offered Johnston the use of the Lab’s boathouse as an R&D facility. And senseFly, a Swiss firm that designs and builds commercial drones for mapping and research, agreed to provide his team with access to the latest drone technologies and platforms.

By September, after eight months and two international research missions in Costa Rica and Canada, the long-awaited 333 Exemption arrived, clearing the newly opened Duke facility for flights in the United States.

All systems were ‘go.’ It was time for take-off.


Within weeks of opening the Drone Center, Johnston and his crew were fielding a steady stream of inquiries.

“People from NOAA started knocking on our door almost immediately asking us to support their projects,” Newton recalls. “Since then, we’ve also flown missions for the National Park Service, the Canadian Department of Fisheries, the UNC Institute of Marine Science, UNC-Wilmington, N.C. State and others.

“We’ve also helped organizations assess the usability of various drone systems based on our experiences, and help them decide which platforms to deploy for specific marine missions,” he says. “Almost every day we’re seeing new research and teaching applications for the technology.”

But the team knew that not all reactions would be so positive.

“With drones, you’re always going to have some people who question what you’re doing—who have seen reports of drones invading privacy, obstructing airspace or crashing into personal property. So we made it a high priority, right from the start, to reassure the community that we have safety protocols in place and are FAA-certified,” Johnston says.

All flight plans are posted in advance and shared with local aviation officials and public safety officials; local residents and property owners are also notified if flight plans will bring drones close to their land.

To help spur increased public trust, Johnston and his team regularly go out and talk to local groups about drones and their role in research.

They’ve created drone-based science outreach programs for area high schools, and offer internships for students at two of those schools—East Carteret High School and Croatan High School—to study drone technology at the center.

They’re working with officials from the nearby Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station and Carteret County Airport to develop a strategy to avoid conflicting flight plans and keep local air space safe.

And they devote a good chunk of their time and expertise to projects that directly benefit the local community, including an ongoing project in partnership with the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences to map and monitor erosion in Bird Shoals, a narrow strand of sand at the mouth of Beaufort Inlet that helps protect the town of Beaufort from flooding and storm surge.

“I call this earning our ‘social license,’ ” Johnston says. “Having the right to fly is a privilege that brings with it responsibility.”

Part of that responsibility, he strongly feels, is making drone technology more affordable and adaptable for use in marine environments.

“Costs and capabilities have improved in recent years, but they are still limiting factors,” concurs lead engineer Julian Dale. “You can buy a $50,000 drone and the first thing most people say is, ‘Don’t fly it over water’; That rules out nearly everything we do. So a lot of our focus has been on finding affordable solutions that work in coastal and marine settings.

“If we can build and equip a drone for $3,000 that can do almost everything a $20,000 model does and can still be used from boats or flown for longer distances or times over water, it would be a boon not just to us but everyone in marine science and conservation who could potentially benefit from drones as research or mapping tools,” Dale says.

To that end, some of the drones in the center’s 12-craft fleet have been retrofitted or prototyped with less expensive experimental components and materials—some of which Johnston and his crew proudly source at their local Dollar Store.

“Right now, for instance, one of the most vexing problems we’re trying to address is that scientists can launch and retrieve multi-rotor drones from a boat but we can’t use fixed-wing drones—which can fly longer distances—because of how they approach the boat and are recovered. It’s a pain,” Johnston says.

“So Rett (Newton) is developing a new aircraft that combines fixed-wing with multi-rotor capabilities,” he says. “You can launch and recover it onboard like a helicopter, but fly it longer distances like an airplane. Rett used Dollar Store foamboard to construct its prototype airframe.”

Following successful test flights, Newton incorporated his hybrid technology onto a new, more permanent airframe with a super-efficient lightweight wing design that allows it to fly for up to 90 minutes. The new drone also features auto-pilot controls that let its operator switch from horizontal flying to helicopter-style hovering at a moment’s notice for safety reasons or because they’ve spotted something new they want to view.

“Sometimes the drone you need is already created, and sometimes you just have to build it,” Johnston says.

“We now have students 3-D printing drones,” he adds. “Essentially, the technology allows them to build aircraft that are programmable, have sophisticated auto-pilots and can carry a camera, too. It’s pretty cool.”


Johnston’s future goals for the center are equally ambitious.

“Using non-experimental, FAA-certified drones, we can currently fly a distance of about 800 meters (about a half-mile) within our line of sight for 50 minutes at a time. We’d like to be able to fly for two hours, over much longer distances and at night,” he says. “This would make us much more of a resource for international researchers or those doing work in very remote locations.”

This winter, they’ll test how far they’ve come toward achieving some of those goals by flying their drones in Antarctica.

They’re also eyeing ways to use new sensors—such an experimental process Johnston is helping develop that uses multi-spectral cameras to make tiny bits of plastic marine debris easier to see and identify on remote beaches or barrier islands.

This new capability, he says, can greatly enhance worldwide efforts to monitor marine pollution.

It also can be employed in local efforts, such as the threeyear, NOAA-funded project his team is now leading to map marine debris in the Rachel Carson Reserve, located a short skiff ride from their doors. The mapping will lead to a massive community-led clean-up project, after which the Duke team will again take to the air with its drones and multispectral cameras to map how quickly vegetation grows back on the reserve’s newly debris-free barrier islands, helping to stabilize them and provide habitat for wildlife.

“I’m from Beaufort, so this stuff is extremely personal for me—both the erosion project on Bird Shoals and the marine debris project in the Rachel Carson Reserve,” says Newton.

“These are social problems, not just marine problems.”

On the teaching front, Johnston would like to provide more hands-on research opportunities at the center for Duke and UNC students, and develop a more formalized education program that includes having courses taught at the center, or by its staff, become part of the Nicholas School’s Certificate in Geospatial Analysis program.

Upgrading the center’s facilities is also a priority.

“We have one of the best waterfront views of any research center on the East Coast,” Johnston quips, as he points out the window toward the sunlight glistening on Beaufort Inlet. “But it would be nice to have space for R&D or teaching that was actually designed for that purpose.”

Thankfully, a newly received $310,000 facilities grant from the National Science Foundation, combined with $270,000 in operating funds from The Oak Foundation, will soon make these necessary upgrades a reality, he says.

As the drone center’s focus and facilities continue to expand and evolve in coming years, new challenges will emerge, Johnston knows, but he’s confident his team can meet them.

“We’re problem solvers, and a damned good team,” he says. “Each of us brings a different skill set, a different perspective on things. We know how to keep our eyes to the sky and our feet firmly planted on the ground.”

Tim Lucas is senior writer for Dukenvironment magazine and is the Nicholas School’s director of marketing communications.