Monthly Archives

May 2016

“Data: More or Less?” by OA Science Manager Andy Rogan

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Perception of our jobs, as marine biologists, varies enormously and is almost always fairly wide of the mark. The, sadly fairly inaccurate, vision tends to be some variation of endless weeks spent cruising over flat-calm and crystal clear deep blue oceans, interacting daily with a myriad of charismatic ocean life, hair going lighter and skin going darker under an infinitely azure and cloudless sky.

These days, the reality is that less and less time is being spent in the field collecting data. Field work can be incredibly expensive, and more time on the ocean means less time in the office fund-raising. Nowadays there are hundreds of groups collecting data: from big oceanographic institutions such as Woods Hole & SCRIPSS, universities and other academic groups, government organizations such as NOAA and non-profits such as Ocean Alliance. This is of course a wonderful thing. Competition inevitably leads to a more efficient, productive industry. Yet, for the most part, we’re competing for the same resources: more hands being put in the same pots for smaller sums of money.

What this means is that when the time for data collection comes along we need to take full advantage. This puts more pressure on us to collect all the data required in that short period of time, and brings to the fore a familiar question in the scientific world. Data: more or less? Collect too little and you could miss out on crucial information, a seemingly innocuous data point which forms the vital piece of the puzzle. Collect too much, and every extra piece of information becomes more time-consuming, more complex and leaves more room for error (and if you are too busy with your head down recording information, you risk not even seeing the whales in the first place!).

One of the major advantages of SnotBot is that it allows us to collect a high number of samples: a good sample size. Small sample sizes are major bottleneck to most data collection techniques which involve collecting physical, biological samples from large whales. SnotBot changes this, by allowing the researcher to race over to a whale, collect a sample/multiple samples from the same whale, race back to the research vessel, wait for the sample to be removed and appropriately stored before flying off to the next whale and repeating the process. Of course, if I had my head down recording every single variable of each flight, this would considerably slow the process. So where does the balance lie?

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This was a conundrum we had to figure out, to decide what was important and what wasn’t. With well-established measures of data collection, many scientists live by the expression, ‘less is more’. Collect only the vital pieces of information, making for a more efficient and more easily analysed data set with far less room for error. SnotBot is not a well-established measure of data collection. Indeed much of the value of these early expeditions is about testing different drones and collection devices in an effort to determine the most effective and practical ways of collecting as much exhaled breath condensate, or ‘blow’, as possible. As we take these first steps into the world of SnotBot, we don’t know what the most important factors will be in shaping whether or not we get a sample and how large that sample will be. As we look to establish SnotBot as a mainstay of marine mammal research, it is imperative that we collect as much data as possible. In 5 years’ time we don’t want to look back and say, ‘if only we had collected this piece of information or that on every SnotBot flight’. We will be able to look back at mountains of data and determine what the most important factors really are. Then, and only then, will we be able to look up a little more often and get to enjoy the experience of being in the company of whales.

Having said that, it might be a stretch to say that we didn’t have many good encounters with whales…

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SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

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OK, so stop me if you heard this one….

A German, two Brits, and a Yank are in a small wooden Panga boat off the coast of the Baja Peninsula using a drone to collect whale snot….

Doesn’t sound familiar? Well why should it? This one was written just weeks ago, but in the making for several years. Although this opening screams for a side-splitting punch line, I have none, for this is no joke. After reading this, you may want to store it away under the category of “You were doing what?” as part of the Bizarro Files.

This blog is just Part One of a series in which I intend to take you on a journey as seen through my progressive-corrective lenses. All of us who participated in this expedition were given the task of writing down their own individual experience. I’m the tech guy/ engineer on this mission, but my goal in writing these blogs will be to “focus” more on the trek with smatterings of geeky, techie stuff sprinkled in. I’ll try to keep it fresh and not to be too redundant of past articles.
The Ocean Alliance SnotBot crew consists of what is fondly referred to by its fearless leader as the A-Team. Not unlike the popular ‘80s television series, the group consists of characters in their own right; Iain Kerr (group leader and drone pilot), Andy Rogan (scientific researcher), Christian Miller (photographer/ documentarian), and me, John Graham (engineering tech). The mission is to perfect the technique in which we collect data rich, liquid exhalation, also known as “snot”, from our cetacean subjects. Spoiler Alert…….. It was a resounding success!! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Following up our “blow-catching” drone debut last September in Patagonia, Act 2 finds our ragtag team in the Sea of Cortez, and for those of you who are geographically challenged, such as me, that is off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Our gear consisted of 16 very heavy and oversized waterproof shipping containers, also known as Pelican cases, and personal backpacks. The night before our departure, my wife Rebecca was pulled into the madness that was my packing process. I stood on the bathroom scale, straining to hold the over-stuffed equipment trunks in my hands, and due to my obstructed view, Rebecca recorded the results. I than subtracted my own weight to get the final poundage of the gear. 50 pounds is the cut-off for check-ins without incurring a huge surcharge. It was the first and only time in my life that I wish I weighed more, because in my mind, the more I weighed, the less the bags weighed. This was my feeble attempt to get the luggage to be within the TSA limits. All this research gear was necessary because you never know what you’ll encounter while doing research in remote locations. Small hand tools, check. Battery powered tools, check. Panty hose, check. Wait…What? (I’ll explain later.) We started our journey by leaving from Logan Airport in Boston and landing in Los Cabos San Lucas, you know, the place where the Love Boat would “set a course for adventure”. And indeed it was truly to be an adventure. After a brief overnight stay and having the Mexican Customs Department graciously lighten our load of Pesos as “payment” for allowing us to bring our plethora of gear into their country, we headed out on a 10 hour road trip.

Desert drive

Desert drive

The vistas were ever-changing with diverse terrain ranging from deserts replete with huge prickly cacti standing like silent sentinels strewn across the landscape; to its counterpart, the oases, with fields of lush green farmland and small ponds used for irrigating the crops. This is followed by mountainous roads so windy that the famous “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street in San Francisco, should hand over its crown and admit defeat. I would consider it one of the most beautifully diverse drives I have ever taken. Apart from the confusing and dangerous road rules, like random stop signs on the main highway or having to play a game of “chicken” with a tractor trailer in order to pass, the drive was quite enjoyable. There were however, the occasional sheer cliff drop-offs void of all those pesky guardrails with near-by asphalt adorned with the skid marks of vehicles not so lucky to negotiate the turn. This served as a not so gentle reminder to keep our eyes on the road and not be seduced by the scenery.

Ocean view

Ocean view

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at our destination, San Ignacio. It is an amazing little town, whose image is easily conjured up by anyone who may have seen a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Passing multi-colored buildings of stucco and a beautifully crumbling old church in the center of town, we made our way to our hotel. It wasn’t difficult to find, being it was the only one around for miles. Upon our arrival in town we were also exposed to the amazing aromas that wafted in through the van’s open windows. The drive there had provided us little in the terms of substantial nutritional intake, just the usual road trip fare of cookies, chips, and candy bars. We quickly unpacked all our gear into the two rooms that served as a brief respite to recharge our batteries after the long drive, than we headed off on foot into town to find the source of the delicious food bouquet. The sounds and smells of fajitas with chicken and beef grilling pulled us towards a little cafe with outdoor seating. These sensory cues draw me back to that place in time as I sit to write this. After sampling the local cuisine, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. We were informed by the hotel manager that on that very night of our stay, the annual Miss Baja Pageant was to take place. Sounded interesting until we discovered that right outside our rooms was the runway for the eager contestants and the festivities didn’t get started until 10:00p.m… This made it difficult for all of us to get sleep, but poor Christian must have drawn the short straw when it came time to choose roomies. The blaring music being emitted from the huge speakers outside was probably a welcome distraction compared to the noises from within his room. He showed great fortitude by not smothering me in my sleep with a pillow in pursuit of muffling the snoring bear in the adjacent bunk with only a night stand and Gideon’s bible as a barrier.
Morning came quickly, as we repacked up the car, grabbed a quick breakfast of huevos, jamon, y frijoles (eggs, ham, and beans) from a roadside tent stand and hit the road for San Ignacio Lagoon. The remote camp was to be our home for the next 5 days. After shooting some “B roll” (that’s movie lingo for the clips that act as filler between the actual action and help set the mood), for our cameraman/ documentarian, Christian, we were on our way. It was a bright sunny day, dirt roads, more cacti, vultures, and a van full of gear and eager SnotBot crew members. The only thing left behind was our memories in a cloud of dust as we made our way to what brought us to this country in the first place, to research Grey Whales by use of our drone platform.

San Ignacio Church

Next blog: Salt, eggs, and rice…..Hint: it’s not a recipe.

John A. Graham
SnotBot Technician/ Engineer

Robotics Club Update, May 2016

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Last week we had a trifecta of new technology on show at our Wednesday evening Robotics Club meeting.

We began by heading out into the field for a flying day, primarily test flying a number of the Alex Monell high wing flyer’s that our club members have been building. As this was many of our club members first time flying, one of our more experienced flyers Austin Monell helped the process by linking two remote controllers together so that he could help trim the planes and act as a back-up in case any pilots got into any flight difficulties.

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We also had a visit from the Ipswich Tigers Team 5459. This is a Robotics group from Ipswich High School which took place in this year’s FIRST Robotics Challenge (www.ipswich5459.com). The FIRST Robotics program is a competition based event whereby groups of high school students form teams and are given a specific set of challenges. They then build a robot capable of meeting these challenges (http://www.firstinspires.org/robotics/frc). In 2016, the 25th year of the competition, 3128 teams involving around 75,000 students participated. In many ways the FIRST Robotics Challenge represents the pinnacle of competition based events in Robotics for high school students, and it was a pleasure to host the Ipswich Tigers, whom even let our own members drive their FIRST Robot 5459. This is tremendously exciting as Ocean Alliance hopes to host our own version of a FIRST Robotic Challenge in Gloucester this winter.

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Last but not least we got to share and test a set of ‘HeadPlay’ goggles (www.headplay.com). When our SnotBot research team goes on expedition, we fly our vehicles using a First Person View (FPV) perspective, whereby the drone pilot is looking at the world through a camera on the drone. We are constantly looking for the best view: of course the crisper and sharper the image, the easier it is to hover directly above the whale. Another area where FPV is very important in in small Quad racing, a sport which has taken off in recent years (pun intended!). Austin Monell brought one of his small racing quads to the field and different club members wore the HeadPlay as Austin raced around the field. Certainly this was the closest to being able to fly that we had ever come! The quad was doing flips and high speed turns and we were very surprised that no one felt sick! As the SnotBot drone operator I found that the 5 inch HD HeadPlay screen was a great improvement from the smaller goggles typically used.

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This meeting was, to me, what our club is all about. Lots of different technologies, lots of different skill sets/equipment and everyone was talking, trying, flying, participating and learning. The Robotics Club is made possible through the generous support of the Applied Materials Foundation, and it is on days like this that we are most grateful for their support.

Go Paint Factory Flyers!

Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Part 3: Blue Whale

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Two remarkable people joined us in La Paz to document the second (and last) leg of our Sea of Cortez expedition. Adrienne Hall from Sound Off Productions (soundofffilms.com) and wildlife cameraman Tom Fitz (http://fitzpro.tv). Adrienne has worked on a number of projects with my good friend Louie Psihoyos (“Racing Extinction” & “The Cove”) and Tom and I met at a friend’s wedding over 20 years ago.

Tom and Adrienne

Tom and Adrienne

 

By 8:00 am the SnotBot team were in a 22 ft panga heading out into Bahia La Paz both excited and a little anxious. We’d had a very productive time in Baja Mexico but we wanted to put the icing on the cake – we needed to further validate SnotBot as a scientific tool, and to do that we needed to fly with at least one more species of whale and this was the last day on the water, the last day of the expedition. Dr. Jorge Urban was at the helm along with two of his students from the University of La Paz and Adrienne and Tom were in a second boat to get a different filming perspective. So we had the A team, we had DJI drones, we had great weather, we just needed whales.  As we headed offshore I joked with Dr Urban, “OK Jorge we need a blue whale today!” In spirit, he smiled and replied,  “No problem amigo!”

Drone Launch

Drone Launch

And two hours into our search that’s what happened. We saw a blow a long way off (still too far off to confirm what species, but it did not look like a humpback blow). My heart was racing as the boats sped towards where we had seen the blows.  After 10 minutes of high speed running the boats slowed down and we immediately launched a SnotBot. Within seconds we saw a blow, still a long way off.  Luckily the Inspire 1’s top speed is close to 50 mph so I raced towards the whale and was soon close enough to see it though my FPV camera system…. and OMG – it was a blue whale!  I cannot describe my feelings as I approached this remarkable animal gliding through the water. After almost 30 years in this business and a British understated reputation to maintain, I have to admit that my hands started shaking and yes I made a mess of my first approach and did not get a blow sample.  I did not care though, the experience of flying SnotBot over the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet was an experience of a lifetime. To put this animal’s size into context: this is the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet; an adult blue whale’s tongue can weigh 6.5 tons; the heart is so big that a human adult could climb into one chamber.  Our blue whale was stunning in the crystal clear water, seeming to swim effortlessly.  After it dove I just left the drone hovering above its footprint and looked around at the rest of the team who were all ecstatic – last day on the water, beautiful weather and we were with a blue whale. I have only ever seen a blue whale once and when you look at the photo below you realize that a drone’s eye view is incomparable; it’s the ultimate viewing experience. Look at its features, how the eyes protrude so that the animal can see forward; look at all of the different musculature and markings on the animal; just look at its amazing color.  So often with SnotBot we focus on the physical data we are collecting from the blow: DNA, microbiomes, pregnancy and stress hormones, but here we can see that even the photos and video that we take have enormous scientific, educational and emotional value.

Blue body & boat

The whale was not coming up in any predictable manner (position-wise), but it was keeping pretty regular dive times (approximately 10 minutes).  So to be safe, we would prep for drone launch at eight minutes and launch at around eight and a half minutes and I would hang in the air 25 feet up looking and waiting for a blow.  This whale’s first blow was always huge, the second big and the third pretty wimpy and the animal would dive right after the third blow, so I had to get there for the second blow.  It took two more tries. I flew down the length of the body just as the whale came up and we caught a massive blow (there is even a rainbow in the blow) well over 80 microliters and just amazing photos and video.  We had 3 more blue whale blow captures that day before we left the animal, totally stunned by the whole experience, with remarkable data, footage and emotions.

Blue Snotted

I think that it is important to pause here and remember that there is no shortcut with the scientific process. We have spent years developing SnotBot working with many volunteers, conducting endless tests with more than enough failures, and a few crashes ashore and over water.  For the first leg of this expedition we spent three days flying into grey whale blows with 5 different snot collection experiments – a total of 41 flights, all of which collected snot but we made no progress collecting snot sample sizes bigger than we collected in Argentina until the 6th and last experiment. Raising funds for this work has also been a tough road, because it was new and experimental. Yes the Kickstarter campaign was successful, but for a small non profit, developing the Kickstarter campaign and running it all the way through to the fulfillment process took up an inordinate amount of staff time and costs. Five years ago pretty much everyone laughed at the SnotBot idea yet here we were collecting samples from blue, humpback, grey and southern right whales. Success is never guaranteed, hard work is – so to have hit the ball out of the ball park on the last day was an experience that is hard to define.  I have spent much of my life looking at whales from an oblique angle from a boat.  In one of our first experiments together in 1988 Roger Payne and I were flying helium balloons and parasails in Argentina trying to get up into the air and here we were 27 years later getting the perfect aerial view and I can tell you it did not disappoint!

Parasail and baloon

We learned so much on the last two expeditions; we better understand what the challenges are ahead of us and what our current limitations are. At the end of the day, though, SnotBot has been an unqualified success – the capacity and value of drones as marine mammal research tools has been validated beyond our initial expectations. The journey is by no means over though. I hope that you will stay with us; we are going to keep pushing this work forward and we hope that you will continue to support us. If you are interested in contributing to this work at any level or know someone who might want to help, please let us know.  Also be advised that there is SnotBot SWAG available in our store! http://shop.whale.org

SnotBot Store

I have to thank all of you out there who are reading this for joining us on this remarkable journey.  To the many supporters without whom we could not have done this work – thank you, thank you.  My deepest thanks also go to the staff at Ocean Alliance for being the foundation upon which this work stands. Last but not least I want to thank my wife and daughter, my drone heaven has been their drone hell, my wife posted on her Facebook page just before we left “Must be a SnotBot expedition coming up, I have a drone in the bathtub, drone parts all over the dining room table and two drones on my bed.”

Dr. Iain Kerr