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Drones Being Used For Environmental Research Off Mass. Coast

BOSTON (CBS) - Drones will soon be in the sky off the Massachusetts coastline. The unmanned mini planes are being used for environmental research.

At thirteen pounds, with a seven foot wingspan, the battery powered unmanned aircraft system can fly for two hours and cover about fifty square miles on a single charge.

The plane was assembled for a two day test at the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary.

"Research offshore is expensive and if this affords a lower cost alternative, that's a big boon," said Craig McDonald of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Drone used for environmental research. (WBZ-TV)

The goal is to see if the plane can be used for monitoring sea life and even mapping the ocean floor.

The high-def camera is the most important tool, providing an eye in the sky. During a recent test it spotted a shark on Stellwagen Bank.

The possibilities are strong.

"Seabird surveys and large whale surveys and possibly whale tagging support in the future," said Matt Pickett of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The plane is operated remotely with a controller and can fly lower and slower than manned aircraft. At a cost of about $300,000, it's also cheaper and quieter.

"We're looking at, does it work well at the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary, does it work well at the Olympic Coast Sanctuary, what about Florida Keys, what about Channel islands, so this is part of a larger picture," Craig McDonald said.

Initial tests of the aircraft have been positive. If the technology is approved, it could be in use off the Scituate coast by next year.

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