State-of-the-art Aerial Surveys Underway


State-of-the-art aerial surveys are underway over a patch of ocean about 24 miles off the coast of North Carolina, where Avangrid Renewables has begun a rigorous process to study our Kitty Hawk offshore wind farm lease area. Earlier this year, we began to gather detailed data on offshore wildlife including birds, sharks, rays, turtles, fish and marine mammals like whales and dolphins.


APEM, a vendor specializing in ultra-high resolution aerial wildlife surveys, alongside environmental specialists Normandeau Inc., are carrying out these high-tech digital surveys.

The Kitty Hawk lease area covers an area of more than 200 square miles of ocean. It forms part of a much larger area of almost 11,000 square nautical miles along the North and South Carolina coast that was surveyed by APEM and Normandeau for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, who leased the area to us in 2017.

We will use the newly generated wildlife data to plan the wind farm and seek permitting approval to build it. Robust baseline data on offshore wildlife is a critical part of the process, against which future monitoring can be compared.

One survey will be completed each month this year using powerful digital imaging systems mounted on twin-engine survey aircraft. Flying over the sea at an altitude of 1,300 feet so as not to disturb the wildlife they are photographing, the aircraft will collect tens of thousands of detailed images during flights that can last up to five hours.

 Back on the ground the images are downloaded, processed and then studied by experienced image analysts.

Over large survey areas such as Kitty Hawk, most images will show a blank seascape. Where the images have recorded wildlife, analysts are able to identify the species, exact numbers, accurate direction of travel and precise GPS locations.


For an experienced analyst, spotting and identifying whales, dolphins and sharks can be fairly straightforward. But seabirds, which are generally much smaller, are equally important to detect and identify. Despite the images being taken at altitude from a moving aircraft, they are detailed enough for ornithologists to identify and even distinguish between species of very small birds such as red phalaropes and red-necked phalaropes, or razorbills and Atlantic puffins.

 For certain species, differences in plumage provide clues that can tell analysts if the birds are adult or juvenile, and even their flight height can be deduced. Normandeau has a team of taxonomic experts for each species group and also uploads the wildlife images in near real time to its publicly viewable website, ReMOTe. In March, photos captured the dolphins and northern gannett pictured here.

 APEM has carried out over 1,600 digital aerial surveys around the world for projects in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, Baltic Sea, North Sea, Irish Sea and the English Channel.

 Surveys of the Kitty Hawk area are due to be completed by the end of the year and we’ll keep making progress as we aim to have an offshore wind farm in commercial operation as soon as 2025.