We’ve reported a number of times on the fantastic work undertaken by Ocean Alliance, a marine conservation organization using drones to study whales at sea.
Ocean Alliance’s Dr Iain Kerr devised a way to capture biological data from whale’s blows using adapted DJI aircraft. ‘Flying Petri Dish’ isn’t very catchy, so they named the concept SnotBot instead. Previously Kerr’s team had to resort to manual biopsies, using harpoons to gather data on whales’ DNA, stress and pregnancy hormones, viruses, bacteria, toxins and more.
With SnotBot that process is quicker, safer, more reliable and clearly preferable from the point of view of both researchers and whales.
“Instead of five whales a day, we can now sample 20 using our DJI Inspire-based drone,” Kerr explains. “The SnotBot flies 40 MPH, so even if we are 1,000 feet away, it can be at the blow site in 15 seconds.”
But it isn’t perfect. Kerr says that the team only gets usable samples half the time because of how difficult it is to predict which way the whales’ ‘blow’ will blow. The windy conditions at sea make this a challenge. “When I hover the drone 12 feet above an animal, I can’t see which way wind is blowing and I regularly miss the blow. It is very frustrating,” he said.
Read more: Ocean Alliance: Drones, Whales & Intel
DroneBlocks Support SnotBot Program With Dedicated Application
DroneBlocks is an Austin-based company that teaches students the real-world application of drone technology through a free app, an online curriculum and professional development services.
One of the things Iain Kerr noted about the SnotBot program way back when was the technology’s ability to inspire young people. STEM subjects and research can be exciting, edge of your seat stuff. Science can be fun. That idea certainly ties in with the work that DroneBlocks does in engaging the next generation of engineers.
“Ocean Alliance and DroneBlocks have a shared mission of education and drone software development,” Dennis Baldwin, founder of DroneBlocks explains. “We immediately saw how we could help them develop an Android-based app and use the results to inspire students across the country.”
To solidify that partnership, DroneBlocks set out to build an application for SnotBot pilots using DJI’s SDK. The app uses an algorithm to detect wind direction and displays this information to the Ocean Alliance team. Although it’s currently in beta testing, early results show it could improve Ocean Alliance’s Snot Capture Rate’ – yes, that is a genuine metric – by 50%.
This would have a big impact on Ocean Alliance’s research and conservation efforts.
According to a statement published by Ocean Alliance and DroneBlocks, the new technology will be taken into the field in February when the SnotBot crew sets out to study Humpback Whales in the Dominican Republic. Someone’s got to do it…
DroneBlocks provides STEM curriculum for hundreds of schools in the United States, and plans to use the results from the Dominican Republic in their online courses as early as next year.
“I don’t think kids understand what a great adventure science can be,” Kerr says. “SnotBot is a great educational tool. Whales, snot and drones – pretty much every child is going to like at least two out of those three!”