Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a Skyward customer, teamed up with marine biologists to study the effects on marine animals of drones used for search and rescue. Watch the video and read more below!


Every day, seals and sea turtles face a growing number of human-caused threats: trash in the food supply, industrial pollutants, and inescapable fishing nets. But for marine biologist Genni Brookshire, saving an injured animal may soon start with help from above.

Genni and her team perform search and rescue missions to help distressed seals and other marine animals. In addition to her background in marine conservation and animal care, she is also an FAA-certified drone pilot. She realized the potential of drones to assess the condition of the animals without disturbing them.

“Using a drone before we respond to an animal to determine the animal’s condition — if it’s entangled, its body condition, if it’s sick — allows us to bring the proper equipment,” Genni said. “We may need to bring disentanglement gear, stretchers, or medication depending on the animal’s needs. Using a drone allows us to reduce the stress on the animal, and increase our efficiency in responding to their unique situation.”

Entangled Grey Seal on Beach seen by drone
Entangled grey seal on the east coast


Genni and her team are looking into this drone use case today, ensuring that it will be safe for the humans and animals involved. But there are a few hurdles to overcome to minimize stress and impact on the animals they care for.

“The problem that we’re trying to solve is that a lot of animals will respond to drones,” Genni said. “They may look up, become stressed, or change their behavior, so we want to make sure any time we’re monitoring marine life using drones that we’re not disturbing them.”

Genni and her team partnered with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the world’s leading aviation universities, to conduct testing with drones. The goal is to determine the pitch and volume levels of different drones in flight to see which model would be most effective at remaining undetected by marine life. They plan to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, and to make the information available for free on Ceto Marine Research’s website.

Drone Operations for Seal Research
Genni Brookshire of Ceto Marine Research with Joseph Cerreta and David Thirtyacre of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University conducting research on how drones can be used to improve animal rescue


“Our hope is that other organizations will bring this information to their research and rescue efforts, so that they can incorporate drones and respond to seals better than if they didn’t have drones, and get more information that can help these animals,” Genni said.

David Thirtyacre, chair of the department of flight for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Worldwide Campus, led the team that conducted the drone testing. David found that virtually no research was available to determine which drones would be best suited to monitor animals without disturbing them.

“This kind of support is something we do frequently,” David said. “Somebody will contact us with a need for aviation support for the research they’re doing. We’re able to come in with drones or other aircraft, bring our expertise on the aviation side, and get them the data that they’re looking for to solve the problems they’re facing.

Drones Aerial View of Beach Test Site
Drone aerial view of the research site captured during a test flight. The team recorded noise levels to determine which drones are best for marine animal rescue efforts.


After collecting data on 10 aircraft in controlled tests, David, Genni, and the Embry-Riddle team deployed to the coast of Washington with what they considered the four best-suited drones to conduct further field testing.

Embry-Riddle uses Skyward, A Verizon company, to manage all their flights. From pre-deployment planning to post-flight logging, hundreds of drone operations across Embry-Riddle’s worldwide campus are tracked in Skyward’s Drone Management Platform.

“Skyward gives me a one stop shop that I can take a look at and get either a snapshot of what’s going on for the day, or I can go back and look at historical data,” David said. “It’s really beneficial to enterprise users like Embry-Riddle.”

Skyward’s drone airspace map was essential for planning the field test. The shoreline shown in the FAA’s VFR sectional — the traditional method for airspace intelligence — depicted a shoreline that was inaccurate by as much as a mile due to rapid coastline erosion. Because Skyward’s airspace map offers multiple views, including satellite imagery and VFR sectionals, Embry-Riddle was able to accurately plan the location and safely access the airspace.

Embry Riddle Drone Flight Area in Skyward
The researchers used Skyward’s Drone Management Platform to plan and log the operation in compliance with airspace regulations


According to Genni, the tests were a huge success. The teams gathered information on how to operate around animals, determining which flight altitudes and angles helped them remain undetected. They also determined which drones operated quietly enough and demonstrated that stealth propellers can reduce the drones’ noise footprint.

From the city to the coastline, Skyward and Verizon support customers with drone management, training, and the connectivity they need to get the job done — and support the important work of wildlife conservation.

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