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Whale Drone Demonstration: Flying for Snotty Research

Aug 09, 2015 10:06 AM EDT
birds-eye of whales
A stunning photo of two humpback whales captured from above during the first test flight of the WHOI/NOAA whale research hexacopter.
(Photo : John Durban, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NMFS, NOAA; and Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Researchers have successfully used a remote-controlled device for the first time to collect real-time breath samples from wild whales. Now experts are saying that this could set a precedent for future research, helping marine biology step away from old and invasive techniques in favor of whale-friendly tech.

This past July, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used a small, six-rotor hexacopter to fly into the face of traditional whale research.

The scientists directed the remote controlled device to hover over humpback whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off New England. Rigged with a specialized camera system, the unmanned airborne vehicle flew 125 to 150 feet above sea level to get full-body photographs of 36 animals. It swooped down to 10 feet above sea level to collect 20 snotty breath samples - called blow - from 16 whales. (Scroll to read on...)

The hexacopter flies through a whale spout to collect blow samples.
(Photo : Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) The hexacopter flies through a whale spout to collect blow samples.

Specifically, the residue collected on the aircraft serves almost like swabbing a whale's mouth - a sample packed full of DNA, hormone, and micro-biome information. The scientists plan to use the hexacopter next winter to collect breath samples from the same whale species living near the Antarctic Peninsula, allowing them to assess the health of humpbacks living in heavily trafficked waters (with ships, etc) compared to more pristine environments.

"[These samples] will give us a new understanding of the relationship between whale body condition and health in the context of habitat quality," Michael Moore, director of the WHOI Marine Mammal Center, explained in a statement.

What's most interesting is that this is just the next step in what seems to be a growing trend in whale research. The flight test is following on the heels of Patrick Stewart and Ocean Alliance announcing their Snot Bot Kickstarter campaign - a movement to put perfected versions of this hexicopter technology into the hands of whale researchers everywhere. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Ocean Alliance)

The Snot Bot takes the WHOI's hexacopter idea and runs with it. Designed in a collaboration with Olin College of Engineering, the Snot Bot can quietly hover over a whale's blow-hole unnoticed, collecting blow samples with a highly absorbent tissue. It also boasts a wireless range of several miles, allowing the research vessels from where these drones are directed to go unnoticed.

And that, according to the Snot Bot team, is why this technology is important.

"Imagine if everything your doctor knew about your health came from chasing you around the room with a large needle while blowing an air-horn," the project's team said. "The chart would say something like, 'elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking.' It's inaccurate."

According to Ocean Alliance's Captain Iain Kerr, that' is what whale research is like now, with biologists using intrusive techniques and bringing along noisy boats in order to collect key samples. Their data, it's been argued, is likely influenced by the stress their presence causes.

It's no wonder then that subtle drone technologies like what the WHOI and NOAA are testing may soon become the future of whale research; and everyone's day, whale and biologist alike, my get a little bit better for it.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).


 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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