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NOAA drone parts shipped in error to college student

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Published:   |   Updated: May 6, 2014 at 10:57 PM

College students receive lots of deliveries.

Pizza. Books. Cookies from home.

But Monday, one college student in New York received something unprecedented — parts of an unmanned aerial vehicle belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The parts — a wing and ground system controller — were mistakenly shipped from MacDill Air Force Base to the student, NOAA said.

The surprised recipient said in a lengthy posting Monday on the social media site reddit.com that he is a college student and was awaiting delivery of some weightlifting equipment from UPS.

Using the imaging posting site Imgur, he posted photos of the NOAA parts as well as a card with NOAA’s address and phone number at MacDill.

“One of several boxes containing components of our Puma unmanned aircraft system was delivered to the wrong address,” NOAA spokesman David Miller said in an email to The Tribune Monday night. “We were sending the aircraft to NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts.”

The wayward drone is the first of its kind, said Miller.

“This has not happened before that I am aware of,” said NOAA spokesman David Miller.

Miller said only wings and a ground system controller were delivered.

“This was not a complete aircraft,” he said.

The complete Puma system can cost “several hundred thousand dollars,” Miller said in a phone call Tuesday morning.

“There’s no way to isolate the value,” of the components accidently delivered to the student, he said.

NOAA officials worked with UPS to recover the parts, said Miller, who lauded the student for reaching out.

“We’re glad that we are in touch and will get this resolved,” said Miller.

UPS officials say they have recovered the package from the student and have prepared it for shipping to the sanctuary, where it should arrive tomorrow, according to spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg. The company, she said, is investigating both how the drone got misdelivered and the company’s response when the student contacted them, which the student said was unsatisfactory.

The package was picked up at MacDill Thursday, said Rosenberg, and accidently delivered to the student in New York on Monday.

“We are still investigating to find out the details,” she said.

“We deliver nearly 17 million packages every day,” said Rosenberg. “Do we make mistakes? Yes.”

The student wrote on reddit.com, “I should mention that the label on the exterior was addressed to me. Nothing on the outside of the crate said it was government property. I had ordered a weightlifting bench (which I received) and this came with it. Both boxes had UPS labels with my name and address. Though an odd box, I genuinely thought it was parts for the bench I ordered, since I wasn’t expecting a freaking drone.”

The student said he reached out to both UPS and NOAA in an effort to return the components.

“The UPS guy on the phone had said that this had been in storage, and was something that had been lost in transit, or in some other way went undelivered,” the student wrote. “He kept saying that it was mine, and something that was intended to be delivered to me, but didn’t make it originally. Due to this, I feel like there isn’t an active search for this thing, at least not yet. I’m not stressing too much, and I am going to call.”

In between classes the student called NOAA at MacDill but got voicemail.

“I’m getting a swarm of messages from people who claim they are in the industry, work at UPS, work for the NOAA, etc, but I don’t think I can trust any of these random contacts,” the student wrote in his post. “I’ll be waiting on a response tomorrow, unless someone has irrefutable proof that they somehow have a connection that can get me to someone who matters on this issue. I’m still alive and well, and if you haven’t read already, it’s not military. Regardless, it’s not mine, and I’ll be sending it to its owner unless I’m told to keep it. ... Here’s hoping I survive until tomorrow.”

After reaching out to a reporter from Motherboard, an online publication that wrote about the plight of the Puma, the student was able to talk to someone from NOAA, who “seemed pretty content about it. They were happy I reached out to them, and now know where their missing shipment went. He sent an email to me and someone higher up in the NOAA.”

Efforts to reach the student were unsuccessful.

The Puma is a hand-launched aircraft with a wingspan of about 9 feet, according to NOAA. Each one has a 5-megapixel camera and can fly for about two hours at speeds up to 55 miles per hour and altitudes up to 10,000 feet.

While no missions are flown out of MacDill, they are planned here, said NOAA Corps Lt. Chris Daniels in an interview last year. And eight of the program’s 40 drone pilots are based here as well. They hop commercial flights to get to missions; the drones are sent via parcel delivery service.

NOAA has used the Puma models to fly over the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, California, on a joint mission of the Coast Guard and NOAA to examine the health of marine mammal and seabird populations and to see if anyone was fishing there illegally. A similar mission has been flown in the Florida Keys.

The Puma, originally designed by the Department of Defense to help troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan locate enemies, “are an ideal platform for such missions,” Daniels said.

NOAA flies about one drone mission a month, planned as much as a year in advance, Daniels said.

One reason for such long-range planning, he said, is that any drone flights in the National Air Space — non-restricted areas used by commercial aviation — must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. NOAA also has to coordinate with a number of government agencies the radio frequencies used to control drones.

“It usually takes about 120 days to get all the approvals,” Daniels said.

Many of the missions are flown for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Program, designed to protect natural areas such as the Channel Islands and Looe Key in the Florida Keys.

The Pumas take two pilots to operate, Daniels said. One flies the aircraft, using a device that looks like the double-handled controller of a Sony Playstation 3 with a video screen that shows the view from the drone’s camera.

The other pilot operates the mission laptop, which takes in live feeds of images and telemetry from the drones. The feeds can also be monitored by partner agencies, Daniels said, such as the Coast Guard.

“The Puma is essentially a flying camera, making it perfect for research in the sanctuary,“ said NOAA spokesman Miller.

Rosenberg, the UPS spokeswoman, said the company is looking at how it handled the student’s call.

“He made an effort,” she said. “We are not sure right now, until we complete our investigation, who he spoke with. We want to make sure peope know if they receive an unintended package, there is a number they can call.”

If you should accidently receive a drone via UPS, or any other package you are not supposed to get, call 1-800-Pick-UPS (742-5877).

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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