Ocean Alliance, a non-profit organization focusing on whale research and conservation, is using drones to gather vital information about whales in a non-invasive way.
These days, even a relatively inexpensive consumer drone is a tool capable of autonomous flight, professional aerial photography and rapid deployment. The technology is being used to gather data across a number of industries, but few are taking advantage of those capabilities quite as far (in a very literal sense) as Ocean Alliance.
Ocean Alliance’s latest research programme – dubbed ‘SnotBot’ – is using customized consumer drones to hover above whales and collect biological samples from their blows. These samples offer a treasure trove of data, on everything from DNA to hormones, which provides information that goes way beyond an individual whale’s health.
Speaking with Internet of Business, Ocean Alliance CEO and expedition leader Dr Iain Kerr pointed out: “In biological ecosystems, it’s the species at the top of the food chain that are most at risk if there is any sort of crisis, whether that’s climate change or an oil spill. Whales, then, are a very good biological indicator as to the health of our oceans – they are our proverbial canary in the coal mine.”
The end of invasive research methods
Gathering information on whales in the wild has always been a challenge. Invasive methods have for years been expensive, inefficient and dangerous, causing undue stress to both whale and researcher. Finding these enormous mammals in the open ocean is one thing. Getting close enough to collect a sample is quite another.
As Dr Kerr explains, “In the past we would have to get a boat within 100 feet of a whale to biopsy it with a crossbow. As a result, we have always had concerns [regarding] the observer effect, where the act of collecting the data changes the data.”
But drones are now giving the Ocean Alliance team a huge advantage. “Now we can be 1km away and fly the drone in quickly, without the animal even knowing that we are collecting data.”
“Drones are giving us a window into the lives of whales we have never had before. The only parallel I can think of is when cellular biologists started using microscopes to peer into the lives of microorganisms – it’s that dramatic.”
Snot collection is only the beginning
It’s easy to look at Ocean Alliance’s drone programme as the equivalent of a flying petri dish. But despite the customization, the drones are also able to gather data in ways their manufacturers originally intended.
“From our drones, we have photographs that can be used to estimate the size of individual whales, video footage that we can use to observe animal behavior, the exact time and position of the sighting, as well as all of the biological data from the blow,” said Dr Kerr.
And there’s more to come. It’s clear that this is only the beginning, and that modified consumer drones have immense potential in marine mammal science and conservation. The Ocean Alliance team is currently developing EarBot, an autonomous drone capable of following a pod of whales, recording their vocalizations and transmitting data back to a research team.
“Typically when you listen to whale vocalizations, you either have a hydrophone on a boat or on the ocean floor,” said Dr Kerr. “Well what happens if the whales move? You have to move your hydrophone, which can then insert noise into the environment that you are trying to study.”
“EarBot flies over to a group of whales, lands in the water near them and turns off its engines. It then transmits live, low-definition recordings back to the boat one to two kilometres away, while recording high-definition sound directly onto the onboard memory card.”
“When the whales swim off, we start the engines, fly over to the new location and start recording again. Just like gathering data with SnotBot, this is minimally invasive to the whales, affordable and relatively easy for us.”