We’ve been closely following the work of Ocean Alliance for a while now. The marine conservation organization first came to our attention with its ingenious, drone-powered data gathering solution: SnotBot. Silly name, brilliant concept. SnotBot is essentially a modified drone that hovers above whales in the wild to collect valuable samples from their blows. Think of them as flying petri dishes.
In turn, these samples offer an insight into the health of individual whales, the oceans and the planet as a whole. Not to mention the way that they make gathering data easier and safer, both for researchers and the whales.
When we’ve reported on Ocean Alliance’s work in the past, it’s been for two reasons. First, it’s clearly one of the most unique applications of drone technology we’ve seen. Second, one of the industry’s biggest names, DJI, got involved and made a short film documenting the team’s work.
Over the summer, Ocean Alliance went a step further. Not satisfied with attracting the attention of one drone industry giant, its latest expedition was supported by another company with serious interests in the drone space, Intel.
As part of the Parley For The Oceans program, Ocean Alliance and Intel teamed up to collect and analyze whale data on a research expedition to Alaska. In tow was a team of marine mammal and oceanographic experts, a technology crew, photographers and filmmakers.
Intel Hardware and Software Will Take SnotBot to the Next Level
Although Intel does develop drones for commercial purposes, the tech giant’s role in this expedition was more focussed on data analytics. The company used a machine learning platform to assess the images coming back from the drones in real time to identify whales and their health. At one point, they managed to identify an individual whale from a drone before the drone had even made it back to the boat.
And that speed is significant. Even though drones have revolutionized data collection for these marine biologists, very little of it is sorted through while the whales are still nearby. The analysis is done later, and it’s not the most exciting of tasks. Intel’s computing resources made it possible to do this quickly, despite factors that would usually make identification impossible, such as a whale’s unpredictable movements or limited visibility.
In a blog post, Intel has confirmed that it will support future expeditions and “help to advance the SnotBot program on several fronts, from drone technology and data collection to data analytics and artificial intelligence.”
Ocean Alliance’s effort to gather data in the field will be boosted in future by the use of Intel drones, such as the Falcon 8+, a commercial drone designed for robust environments precision flight.
Ocean Alliance Hits Research Milestones With The Help of Drones
During the Alaska expedition, Ocean Alliance and the SnotBot team also hit a few research milestones, including:
- A first attempt at using a DJI Zenmuse FLIR camera to record the blow and consequent body temperature of a whale.
- Successfully whale snot collections with both a DJI Inspire 2 and a Mavic Pro.
- Successful testing of EarBot, a drone that lands in the water near whales and records their vocalizations.
- The successful collection of snot from an orca. Yes, really.
We’re looking forward to hearing about what Ocean Alliance and the SnotBot drones get up to next.