“These are the voyages of the Ocean Alliance. Its aquatic mission: to preserve aquatic sealife, to seek out new whale snot, to boldly send drones where no drones have gone before.”
OK, so maybe that’s not the precise mission of a marine biological study to analyze whale behavior; but with the help of Sir Patrick Stewart, the non-profit project has injected the celebrity equivalent of photo torpedoes into its Kickstarter campaign to deploy drones for the purpose of quiet, non-invasive whale research.
Stewart appears in a video to demonstrate the value of Snotbot, a copter drone that can quietly and unobtrusively fly into a whale’s spray of discharged water and mucus and obtain samples without harassing the whale. Students from Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. designed the in partnership with Ocean Alliance.
From illegal whale hunters to over-exuberant tourist-watchers to human-made ocean noises, whales are under a lot of stress and, unlike humans, when whales stress out they don’t seek peace in the bottom of a Ben and Jerry’s container – they produce gallons of mucus full of stress hormones.
And here’s the Catch 22: In order to obtain a mucus sample that can be used to acquire stress-related medical data, whale researchers must steer motorboats near the animals – the noise of which causes them more stress. Indeed, the “doctor” can make the “patient” even worse by trying to get a diagnosis.
“Having a lung lining sample is crucial. With it we can see virus and bacteria loads, analyze DNA, and look for environmental toxins that have been absorbed into the whale’s system,” an Ocean Alliance spokesperson explains. “Perhaps most importantly, we can test for levels of hormones, which gives us information on the reproductive cycles and stress levels of these creatures as they are increasingly impacted by human activity in their natural habitats.”
Before Snotbot, researchers had to chase down whales with loud watercraft and shoot the mammal with a sampling dart from a crossbow in order to obtain a sample.
“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 chart would say something like, ‘elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking,” Iain Keer of Ocean Alliance said. “It’s inaccurate. This is what we believe is going on with some of the current whale data due to the invasive nature of previous sampling methods, and with Snotbot we mean to correct it with a clearer picture of whales that are undisturbed.”
Snotbot can fly close to a whale without it knowing it’s being observed and never touch the creatures. “Dozens of technological hurdles had to be overcome in order to make the drones capable of collecting a physical sample at this distance in an uncontrolled marine environment,” an Alliance spokesperson noted. “We crashed a lot of drones in the process (some even on purpose) but wound up with a system we can count on to give us the vital data we need.”
Note: Kickstarter patrons who pledge $250 will receive a signed copy of the Whales IMAX DVD narrated by Stewart.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
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