I am writing this blog from the RV Odyssey 120 nautical miles out in the Gulf of Mexico on the final leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Most of the day we are tracking whales acoustically (oh for a drone to help us find whales), but for part of every day on this leg we are conducting ship trials (at sea launch and recovery exercises) on a variety of drones.

SnotBotI imagine that when people hear the word drone they go through a variety of emotions.  Most people are familiar with military drones, but as the technology advances and these machines become cheaper and more popular, people are encountering recreational drones such as the DJI Phantom.  I am an advocate for the next decade being the Decade of the Drone–the opportunities they will offer us (particularly in the environmental field) are ground breaking and exciting.  The cover of the August Issue of Popular Science reads, “25 Reasons To Love Drones (and 5 Reasons to Fear Them).”  They talk about drones saving lives in combat zones; monitoring wildfires; helping farmers and archeologists; search and rescue drones that look for people after tornadoes or flooding; remote-sensing drones monitoring pipelines, wildlife and climate change; and even helping to win Academy Awards (“Skyfall” and “Transformers”). Last but not least, they are allowing athletes and adventurers to document their endeavors in ways never thought possible.

The naming of these new tools is not yet standardized which adds to the confusion.  We have UAS’s Unmanned Air Systems, SUAS’s Small Unmanned Air Systems, AAV’s Autonomous Air Vehicles, MAV’s Micro Air Vehicles, and finally, drones. Alas, due to the expansive use of drones by the military, the name drone is stuck in people’s minds, along with more negative than positive connotations.

Our interest, of course, is in the field of animal conservation, specifically finding, observing, documenting, surveying and/or collecting physical data on our oceans and marine mammals. And here, of course, comes the challenge–while there are probably a hundred different drones for sale nowadays, there are very few (affordable) drones that are suitable for use in the marine environment. Today’s drones really are small flying computers and I have yet to find a computer that likes salt water.

Testing a drone during Operation Toxic GulfSince 2010 Ocean Alliance has been partnering with Olin College of Engineering. Working with Dr. Andrew Bennett, we have been challenging Olin students to develop drones (above, on, and below the water) that will help us answer real world research and conservation questions in a non-invasive manner. In the future we hope to use drones to find whales, identify individual whales, track individual and groups of whales, observe behavior, and collect a variety of photo, video and physical data from whales.  We also hope to use our drones to document whales in distress, for example, whales that are caught in lines or nets (entanglement) so that we can give aerial photos to first responders to help them disentangle an animal.

Specifically on this leg we are testing 3 machines: Snot Bot–a drone that will fly over a whale and collect whale DNA, viruses, bacteria, and stress hormones from whale blows or EBC (exhaled breath condensate); Snot Shot–a machine that makes a simulated whale blow on demand (when we collect EBC we will need a control sample of the surrounding sea water); and Snot Yacht–an instrumented whale surrogate (Colorado XT pontoon inflatable boat) that carries Snot Shot but also carries a whole host of other instrumentation. For example, we have anemometers so that we can document the speed of the down wash that a whale might feel on its back when a drone flies overhead, we have calibrated hydrophones (underwater microphones) at 3 and 10 feet below the water so that we can record what a whale might hear, we have video cameras, temperature gauges and an assortment of environmental data collectors so that we can try to understand the full experience a whale might have when we fly a drone over them.

While we are not doing any whale overflights with drones on this leg (the permitting for this is still being reviewed for US waters), we hope with all the data we bring back from this expedition that we will be able to refine our data collection procedures, build the next generation of environmental data collection drones (and help in their regulation), all the while being on the forefront of developing benign research tools for whale and ocean conservation.

Iain Kerr – Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 Expedition Leader

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