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2008 NWHI Mission
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It's a Bird; it's a Plane; it's...Malolo!

By Barbara Mayer

Our ship, NOAA’s Oscar Elton Sette, is north of O`ahu trying to stay within the North Pacific Sub-tropical Convergence Zone to perform some very important missions.  These missions are interrelated.  Here’s a list of them, focusing especially on marine debris --

(1)        A team of observers will take turns using large, “Big Eyes” binoculars, which are bolted to the ship, to observe and record whales & dolphins.  The observers will try to identify the species of mammal and record its behavior, its bearing & distance from the ship and other information.

(2)        The Big Eyes observers will also scan the ocean surface to spot marine debris.  They will enter information about the debris, similar to the mammal data, into a computer program.

(3)        Another team of scientists on board the ship will use the CTD (which stands for conductivity, temperature, depth) apparatus to measure ocean chemistry & biology factors, especially water temperature, salinity and varieties & amount of chlorophyll.

(4)        Scientists in Honolulu will get information about chlorophyll and other ocean factors from space satellites far above the ocean surface. This satellite data will be used to generate DELI (Debris Estimate Likelihood Index) maps.  The CTD data will be used to ground truth this remotely sensed data.

(5)        Both the CTD data and the DELI maps will be used to locate areas of the ocean where marine debris is most likely to be found.  If large debris is found, there will be follow-up operations; see below.

(6)        An Unmanned Aircraft System (the UAS) has been designed to assist in spotting marine debris.  It will be tested at sea for the first time during this cruise.

Malolo Launch
In order to achieve these multiple, integrated missions we have a total of 40 passengers, and each one has a job that’s necessary.  The 20 NOAA officers and crew are responsible for sailing the ship, keeping it in working order, operating heavy machinery…and fixing delicious meals.  The scientific staff count is 19, and it’s their job to collect the data.

Malolo Launch
After reading the paragraph above you may have done the quick math to realize I’ve left out one passenger.  In fact, it is a star passenger in the marine debris mission.  This passenger doesn’t require meals, hot showers or a bunk to sleep in.  It is the small, computerized UAS called Malolo, which means “flying fish” in the Hawaiian language.  Malolo weighs only 10 pounds and has a wingspan of 7 feet, which just about matches the wingspan of Mother Nature’s gliders, the albatross birds.

Malolo Launch
Malolo is one of a family of UAS invented by the engineering company of Airborne Technologies (ATI) in Wasilla, Alaska.  Malolo was built specifically to assist with NOAA’s effort to detect, track and remove marine debris before it washes ashore at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  If you’d like to join our mission in spirit, maybe you’d like to fold a paper airplane to look like Malolo.  Perhaps try the “Nose Heavy Paper Airplane” model at this website:


Here’s how Malolo works.  The ATI engineers stand near the bow (front) of the ship on the main deck to launch the aircraft.  They launch it either by hand or by using a mechanical launcher.  Once launched, one of the engineers uses a hand-held instrument panel to pilot Malolo.

Malolo Launch
In addition, there are two boats that assist in the operation.  Since Malolo is not allowed to be out of sight due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, one boat moves over the ocean surface keeping Malolo in view at all times.  The aircraft is battery-powered, and it can stay airborne for as long as an hour.  When the flight ends, it is brought down for a smooth landing on the ocean.  Someone leans out of the boat and picks up the aircraft.  Then the boat travels to the ship, where Malolo is passed aboard for another launch.

Malolo Launch
Conceptually, while flying, Malolo’s “eyes” look down on the ocean and record a video of what it sees.  This video will be relayed back to scientists aboard the Sette where special computer software operating along with the video is programmed to pick out anomalies, including marine debris.  If debris is spotted, the specific video segment will be permanently recorded on the computer’s hard drive.  As large marine debris is sighted, scientists on the Sette will radio the second boat to perform one of two jobs: (1) tag the debris with a buoy so satellites can track its path in the currents, or (2) recover the debris, bringing it on board the ship for transport back to Honolulu’s H-Power Plant for incineration. 

In summary, Malolo’s job is to go beyond what human eyes can see.  It is hoped that Malolo will prove to be a useful tool in our fight against marine debris!

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