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THIBODAUX, La. (AP) -- Nicholls State University in Thibodaux is taking a new perspective on tracking coastal erosion and the health of Louisiana's barrier islands more closely.

The islands are an important habitant for migratory birds and a front-line protection against hurricanes, but the islands have undergone heavy erosion as the state's coast has faded into the Gulf of Mexico.

Often the province of satellites and airplanes, the coastal mapping effort by Nicholls, which is in its early stages, is being tried with a six-foot, unmanned aircraft that has a four-foot wingspan and a small propeller engine, a university professor said.

The Advocate reports (http://bit.ly/KKuU4c ) that Nicholls State is one of 61 universities, police departments and other government agencies with Federal Aviation Administration authorization to use unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

The remotely operated UAVs, or drones, use the same kind of technology once reserved for tracking and killing terrorist insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere overseas.

Balajj Ramachandran, Nicholls State associate professor and interim head of the applied sciences department, has led the effort at Nicholls to start testing drones and assess their mapping potential, from coastal restoration to disaster response.

The small, remotely operated planes and helicopters can fly more frequently and linger longer than satellites and manned aircraft over coastal areas, saving money and providing a richer picture of what is happening on the coast, he explained.

'That's why the UAVs will be a big alternative. It costs less. It brings down costs, and you can fly whenever you want,' Ramachandran said.

He said those working on the drone program have gathered a year's worth of data over the state's barrier islands, but they have not published a paper yet.

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

AP-WF-05-12-12 1613GMT

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