In June last year news emerged that Ocean Alliance, a leading organization dedicated to marine conservation and research, was using drones to gather data on whales. Almost one year on, we’ve been back in touch to find out how things have progressed and how drones have transformed their expeditions.
The premise of Ocean Alliance’s data gathering drones is similar to that which we’ve seen across a number of industries. They are cheaper, safer, faster and more efficient than conventional means. But in this case, they are also non-invasive. Speaking with Ocean Alliance CEO Dr Iain Kerr, it’s clear that this factor is as important as any.
Read more: Our story on SnotBot from last year
“What is also important here is the amount of data we can collect simultaneously,” he said. “A biopsy arrow just gets a bit of tissue, with our drones we have photographs that can be used to estimate size, video footage that we can use to observe animal behavior, we have the biological data from DNA to microbiomes and last but not least we have the exact time, date and position of the sighting. Drones are giving us a window into the lives of whales we have never had before.”
The DNA gathering that Kerr mentioned is perhaps the most notable aspect of Ocean Alliance’s drone program, known as SnotBot. SnotBot is usually a converted DJI Inspire 1. As well as gathering some incredible aerial footage, a petri dish of sorts is linked up to the drone and it’s sent to hover directly above a whale’s ‘blow’.
This huge exhalation contains all sorts of valuable biological data that can tell researchers a lot more than you’d think about the whale in question and the quality of its habitat.
Drones can transform the perception and practicalities of whale research
Kerr is passionate about how drone technology can transform both the way his team collects data and how it can raise awareness about the work of Ocean Alliance.
It’s hard for me to express how excited I am about the whole concept of drones for whale research. I have been in this industry for over 30 years and I have not seen many game-changers as significant as drones,” he said.
It is also very fulfilling for me to see how many people of different ages also get excited about SnotBot and the use of drones for whale research, exploration and science in general, from Sir Patrick Stewart to a 9-year-old girl in my robotics club.”
“Todays kids are constantly connected via small but powerful electronic devices and they are making new connections with the technology they have in their hand. That’s why SnotBot is the right tool at the right time: kids can easily equate and become excited and empowered by this tech. Love it or hate it, you remember the name SnotBot.”
Beyond the physical data that SnotBot collects, there are two promising elements in Dr Kerr’s mind: “The price point and the expansive potential,” he said. “When a tool becomes affordable, more people use it and experiment with it, things that you might not do with a 20k tool. I see the world of drones opening doors for exploration and documentation of our oceans. You don’t have to be a PhD scientist to collect data or make a discovery, you just need to have curiosity and some persistence.”
“Drones can find engage you whatever your personal interests, whether it’s science, engineering, programming, photography, adventure, exploring or conservation.”
The year ahead: Introducing EarBot?
As well as a live shoot with National Geographic in this coming July, Ocean Alliance has plenty of ideas in the pipeline for how drones could help the organization better conserve marine life.
“One new concept that we have just tested is EarBot,” Dr Kerr tells me. It’s essentially going to be a flying hydrophone, but one that is smart enough to follow pods of whales and transmit findings back to the research team. Again, this is a thoroughly modern, non-invasive way of keeping tabs in whales in the wild.
“Typically when you listen to whale vocalizations, you either have a hydrophone on a boat or on the ocean floor. Well what happens if the whales move? You have to move your hydrophones, which then inserts noise into the environment that you are trying to study.”
EarBot flies over to a group of whales and lands in the water near them before turning off its engines. It will be able to transmit data back to a boat and also record high definition data.If the whales move, it can follow and start the process again. “Minimally invasive to the whales, affordable and relatively easy for the humans,” says Dr Kerr.