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Released October 13, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS 'FLYING BOAT' TO AID GULF OF MEXICO RESEARCH

OCEAN SPRINGS - What looks like a cross between a hang glider and an inflatable boat will soon be helping researchers at The University of Southern Mississippi learn more about offshore game fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

Southern Miss oceanographer Dr. Vernon Asper today demonstrated a new flying boat intended to support fisheries research as well as other projects that require aerial observation. A veteran pilot, researcher and professor of marine science, Asper put the craft through its paces near the Southern Miss Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, headquarters for the research to be the first to benefit from the new apparatus.

Asper will use the flying boat initially to help GCRL researchers locate masses of sargassum, a species of brown algae that floats in the open gulf and serves as critical habitat for juveniles of many important species such as marlin, dolphin fish and tuna.

"Fisheries biologists at the lab study these seaweed mats and the fish that live there in order to learn about the fishes' life cycles, feeding habits and abundances in various places and seasons," Asper said.

Asper and colleagues will transport the aircraft to gulf study sites on the deck of the research vessel Tommy Munro. Asper will search an area within 10-15 miles of the ship, determine the exact position of the seaweed by Global Positioning System (GPS) and transmit the positions to the ship using a marine radio.

The flying inflatable boat (FIB) is a commercial product built by Polaris Motor in Italy. Asper said that although more than 1,300 are in use worldwide, only a few are used for research.

"One is used for coral reef surveys in Aldabra, an island group in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar, and they've been used for releasing sea turtles offshore. Like small boats, they are mostly used for recreation, although I don't find it all that recreational."

He said the small craft is a far cry from his experiences with small airplanes. The pilot steers the boat in the water using a water rudder and, once airborne, uses the wing to control lift. He turns by shifting his weight, just as a hang-glider pilot does.

"Everything is backwards compared to a conventional aircraft," Asper said. "With the FIB you push right to go left and push forward to go up."

The FIB consists of a rigid-hull inflatable boat similar to the popular Avon or Zodiac models, a jet-ski engine driving a "pusher" aircraft propeller and a large hang-glider wing. The aircraft is carried to the research site on a trailer or on board a larger research vessel, assembled, and placed in the water.

Asper's research group acquired the $23,000 boat through self-generated funds.

"No state funds were used. This is an example of an excellent use of self-generated funds to support research in the gulf," he said.

The GCRL fisheries biologists who pioneered much of the fisheries research in the northern gulf are now part of the Southern Miss Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the lab and work closely with faculty in the Southern Miss Department of Coastal Sciences, also headquartered at the lab. The sargassum research continues under funding through the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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