Marine Biologist Alicia Amerson is setting standards for responsible drone use to protect wildlife from disturbance and promote research applications
Tell us about yourself and your background
As a little girl in New Mexico I was fascinated with the ocean and now I am a marine biologist interested in reducing anthropogenic impacts to wildlife. In 2017 I founded Alimosphere to establish a cultural standard for flying drones responsibly around wildlife. Growing up I rode horses everyday and found as many books as possible to read about marine wildlife, their habitats, migration patterns, foraging preferences, and any other scientific fact that was known at the time. I also geeked out on terrestrial wildlife. I am interested in global biodiversity, our connection to the environment, and as a young girl I dreamed of how I would one day protect wildlife from going extinct. I earned a BS in biology from Eastern New Mexico University. After graduation I worked on environmental remediation projects at Los Alamos National Laboratory where I gained over 10,000 hours of project management experience and earned my PMP certificate. I completed my Master’s degree in marine biodiversity and conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). At SIO I focused on whale-watching tourism and the use of guidelines or regulations throughout the entire industry along the Pacific coast in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. As a marine mammal observer I’ve seen a great number of whales and dolphins. Prior to my drone startup, Alimosphere, I was the first California Sea Grant fellow to work for Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. Now I work exclusively on protecting wildlife from anthropogenic impacts, while educating people about the exciting possibilities of using drones for research and other good purposes.
How did you get started in the drone industry?
In 2014 I connected with Dr. Fredrik Christiansen, a colleague at Murdoch University in Western Australia who studies large whale health, body condition, and impacts resulting from whale-watching tourism. In 2015 I flew to Australia to join Fredrik’s first study using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) specifically Splash drones to measure body condition of humpback whales (mother and calf) in the Exmouth Gulf. The following year I flew out for the second season of data collection in South Australia where we used similar techniques with DJI Inspire drones to capture footage of female and calf southern right whales. The protocol for flying on a research project is much different from what I saw along the coast in California when I returned home.
In 2015 regulations for drones were under examination in the U.S. and a majority of American marine mammal researchers were not allowed to fly drones over marine mammals. This slow pace in regulation development put the American researchers at a disadvantage globally in research, innovation, and growth of job opportunities that would allow more licensed drone pilots to enter the conservation field. In 2018, there are still no standards for flying UAS over marine wildlife, and the rule of thumb is “just don’t do it”. In 2016 FAA approved UAS regulations, while at the same time drones were becoming more affordable to the public. It was at this time I noticed a drastic increase in the use of drones along the coastline and on whale-watching boats, and I was concerned that pilots were not using proper flight protocols to ensure public safety, including safety of local manned aircraft. The FAA did not include regulatory guidance for minimizing impacts to wildlife (which is understandable since it’s beyond their agency scope). But I wanted to know which agency should regulate drone flights or at least provide guidelines to protect wildlife. This led me back to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who also manages whale-watching guidelines and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). NOAA has not enforced any marine mammal disturbances caused by drones and they are not responsible for managing seabird disturbances. These observations lead me to discussions with colleagues who are concerned about wildlife disturbance and interested in creating a global guidance document to reduce stress to wildlife.
Tell us about your organization and your role there.
As I explored the topic of reducing stress to wildlife I convened a group of government, NGO, and commercial industries to create best practices for using drones in marine habitats. The task force developed a draft guidance document at the end of 2017. Currently we are working to finalize the document in 2018. In the mean time we have compiled research papers on our best practices page to help pilots understand the issue and research.
The work of the task force revealed that there is a need to support biologists who desire to implement drones into their research programs. Drones are still costly for non-profit research organizations that are mainly funded through grants and many have not been able to add UAS to their research permits.
Alimosphere was created in 2017 and we set out to promote responsible use of drones by all levels of UAS pilots through education and outreach, and we help researchers implement drone technology into their field projects.
As the founder of Alimosphere I work with conservation-based research organizations around the world to help them convert from expensive manned aircraft surveys to unmanned aircraft solutions. By placing the biologist on the ground we reduce human mortality events caused by manned airplane accidents, we can collect data faster, safer, and with greater accuracy, all while minimizing impacts to wildlife. Drones are still expense for research programs that are primarily funded through grants, so we have recently opened our drone matching program that provides drones that may be sitting unused or on someone else’s on shelf and allow them to reuse used by under-funded organizations a new and exciting life to perform research duties for conservation.
Our approach to the Respect Wildlife Awareness Campaign is developing outreach material and conducting in-person and online education seminars to help promote responsible use of drones around marine wildlife. We provide training for all organizations and people interested in knowing more about flying responsibly and safely around wildlife. We provide Wildlife Disturbance Reduction Templates for commercial businesses who are applying for Environmental Assessment Inspections and other agency permits. We also provide conservation-focused flight information to non-profits seeking grant funds for UAS technology implementation.
What do you like most about being in the UAS industry?
The technology is allowing us to see animal behavior that we could only speculate about in the past. We had no idea how large male whales interact during mating season under water. With drones we can see how the competitive pods of males use their pectoral fins to push each other away from a fertile female whale and how the female (most often with a calf) protects her baby from the aggressive pod. Drones allow us to take images that measure body condition or the fatness of a whale. For example we can measure how fat the highly endangered resident killer whales are in Puget Sound (Durban). Images taken from drones may show the killer whale pods body condition in various years. In years with low body fat it may indicate they have not eaten a sufficient amount of salmon during the salmon reproductive migration. Researchers can then assess the related impacts such as fisheries, acoustic disturbance (navy sonar, oil exploration, boat and ship engine noise), insufficient salmon population (salmon stocks are endangered and near extinction in many places due to habitat loss), increased salmon fishing effort, or increased whale-watching operations. Most of these impacts are anthropogenic and cumulatively related which makes it hard to address a solution to the problem. Drone images allow researchers to monitor the orca and make video recordings of the intimate bonds created between the matriarch whale and her pod. But this tool alone cannot save the orca and salmon populations – that is up to humans. By sharing our recorded video and images we create this story that is essential for protecting what is important – the orcas and salmon – and for connecting communities together. This is what excites me the most.
What’s your favorite type of project and why?
My favorite project was in South Australia flying from seaside cliffs along the Head of the Bight. We photographed southern right whales along the cliffs without acoustic or anthropogenic impacts. We were able to record mother and calves behaving naturally, bonding, nursing, swimming, breaching, and resting. Drones are an effective tool because they can be flown at an altitude that does not disturb and acoustic research has demonstrated drones do not produce noise under the water like boat engines do. Drones are taking us places we’ve not been able to go before.
A project that I am thrilled to take part in is using UAS to find stranded marine wildlife and entangled whales, dolphins, sea lions, and seals. Standings and entanglements are huge issues along our coastlines all over the world. Drones will allow us to quickly locate an animal suffering from entanglement. We can deploy emergency teams with the right tools to release these animals from fishing gear or ghost nets before it’s too late. We can also use the UAS to locate pinnipeds stranded on hard to access beaches then deploy a rescue group to the exact geo-referenced location where the animal can be picked up and delivered to a rescue center for rehabilitation and eventually be release back to the wild.
Using drones to map coastlines and identify point source pollutant areas is another project I am working on with a variety of global partners. A simplified overview is drone imagery will be used to identify where pollutants enter the watershed. Environmental consultants and agencies can prevent trash from coming through the watershed with engineered solutions, we can provide new better options for the communities linked to the living in the land-based debris, and ideally eliminate marine debris that would otherwise enter the ocean. Drones are essential for sediment monitoring, coastal adaptation from sea level rise, and will help mitigate the marine debris issue.
I like to say yes and be open to all the possibilities. My favorite projects with drone ideally promote women and protect our ocean and environment.
Do you have a success story you would like to share?
Researchers are responsible for publishing their findings. But more importantly there is a global need to share meaningful results with the general public without diluting the quality and meaning of the information. As we explore uses for drones, we know they can be used for good, but they can also have cumulative negative impacts on wildlife too. Our collective group of researchers and organizations working to educate and provide outreach to reduce disturbance is a huge success already. Our success is measured in numbers of people we encounter and influence. When we provide meaningful information that leads to a behavior change to reduce impacts on wildlife by any kind of human interaction – That’s success! Those that already read the Alimosphere Flight Blog and follow Alimosphere on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are part of the success story. In less than one year we’ve already made a huge impact on protecting wildlife and we’re grateful to those who follow us!
What excites you most about the potential for women in the industry?
Women are paving the way and have a strong voice in how the industry is emerging. We set the standards on policy and innovation when it comes to this technology. We are encouraging each other to grow and collaborate around the world. Women are the foundation of this industry. In the future our history books will describe this period of time in the drone industry in terms of the “Women Who Created the Drone Industry”.
What’s your current favorite drone to fly?
I really love my DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Everything about it is reliable and easy. I can map, photograph, video, and it’s enjoyable to fly.
What You’ve Learned:
What has been your most significant “lightbulb” moment since you entered the industry?
Personally: People want to do the right thing.
Alimosphere: Robots are our global web that connect us to each other and our environment. Simply, when we teach a man to fish he’ll never go hungry; when we fish for him it is certain he will starve when we leave. Teaching drone skills to pilots leads to community development opportunities. Those jobs provide biodiversity protection and new connections to our environment through imagery and global collaboration.
What have you learned you wish you had known when you got started?
The original idea was developed well, but understanding business operations can be difficult. Designing a project or program is much different from running an entire business. We are open to any mentors that would love to help us with the operational components so we can support UAS integration and promote responsible UAS flights.
Is there a tip you learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?
Network and be a part of the drone community. Be open to all the opportunities. We need your ideas and your voice. If there is something you’ve thought of, put it out there – don’t wait. Give yourself permission to achieve, to fail, to achieve again, and to follow your dreams.
What’s the best way for W&D readers to connect with you?
The Final Word:
Is there anything else you would like to share with the Women and Drones Community?
I’d love to connect with anyone interested working on other conservation projects that will improve communities, increase environment awareness, protect wildlife and our ocean, lead to policy for climate change and sea level rise mitigation, and attack the expansive issue of marine debris. If you have ideas on how drones will save the day – we are looking to partner. If you have an idea let’s talk.