BEAUFORT, Carteret County –Researchers at the Duke University Marine Lab have put together an elaborate system of unmanned aerial devices to study marine life off the Atlantic Coast.

The Marine Conservation Ecology Unmanned Systems Facility includes lots of equipment, some home made, for the mission to learn about and protect marine life.

“From being able to go out and assess populations of animals–count them, to looking at the threats that might influence those environments, like marine debris,” says facility director Dr. David Johnston.

Video data collected from Duke Lab drones and shared with NewsChannel 12 show gray seal populations along the Canadian coast line.

Johnston says since it’s part of Duke University, another important part of the mission is to train Duke students and others how to operate this system safely and efficiently.

Courses targeted to begin sometime next year will cover an array of flight planning and airspace issues, rules, even craft building.  They’re expected to draw students in Marine Science and other fields of study.

Program manager Everette Newton, a retired U. S. Air Force fighter pilot, expects the FAA to change rules affecting drones next year.

“You have the commercial entities, and then you have the hobbyists and the two criteria are different.  They want to make sure this is all safe and it will be interesting to see what the new rules will allow,” says Newton.

The FAA said last month it would eventually require all drones to be registered.

Several other industries are learning how they might use drone data someday.  They include law enforcement, advertising, agriculture, commercial photography, even television news.

“These systems allow us to save money, reduce human risk, and actually collect better data at the same time.  We can do a flight and in four hours we have maps that can allow us to really understand what’s going on in the place that we just surveyed,” says Johnston.

Newton says the lab started looking at a five and a ten year plan for the technology, but couldn’t see ten years ahead because it’s evolving so quickly.