Research, Innovation, and Drones

Ever since Ocean Alliance’s founder, Dr. Roger Payne, discovered that whales can sing and recorded their songs, Ocean Alliance has been pioneering methods of studying and learning about the lives of these amazing mammals noninvasively, without injuring or disturbing them. Ocean Alliance’s latest innovation is the use of drones to observe whales and collect data about them without having to get researchers or boats anywhere near the animals!

SnotBot

In the past, the only ways to get a biological sample from a specific whale were expensive, time-consuming, dangerous, or all three. Researchers could necropsy a dead whale if one was found,  approach a live whale in a boat to dart it and retrieve skin and blubber samples, or approach by boat to try to collect samples of the whale’s blow using a long pole. The blow, or exhaled breath condensate (EBC), contains a treasure trove of biological information, including DNA, stress hormones, pregnancy hormones, ketones and microbiomes. Ocean Alliance CEO Dr. Iain Kerr thought there might be a less expensive and more benign way of collecting EBC than by chasing after a whale in a boat — drones!

A SnotBot drone with a petri dish attached to collect whale blow. (Photo by Christian Miller)

A SnotBot drone with a petri dish attached to collect whale blow. (Photo by Christian Miller)

Modified consumer drones have immense potential in marine mammal science and conservation. Ocean Alliance’s SnotBot program has been at the very forefront of this new research paradigm. not only attaching petri dishes and sponges to drones to collect whale blow, but also attaching  cameras and microphones to collect a broad spectrum of other valuable data.

SnotBot collects biological data:

DNA, which reveals the animals sex and gives us the animal’s individual biological fingerprint.

Microbiomes, which help fight disease, digest food, and synthesize vitamins; knowing more about a whale’s microbiomes help us better understand the species

Pregnancy hormones, which are valuable in understanding the reproductive cycle and the animal’s health

Stress hormones, which SnotBot can collect without adding to the animal’s stress level (which being chased by a boat would do)

Ketones, which are related to metabolism and can give us information about energetics and health

 

SnotBot took this image of a Southern right whale mother and calf during an expedition in Patagonia.

SnotBot took this image of a Southern right whale mother and calf during an expedition in Patagonia.

SnotBot’s video camera also collects images of natural behavior, uninfluenced by the presence of boats or people, and photogrammetry — high resolution vertical images used to asses body condition from girth and lesion marking; until SnotBot, these images were collected using expensive, very loud, and potentially dangerous light aircraft.

SnotBot, with its capability to inexpensively collect this wide variety of immensely vauable data, is changing the way we are able to study whales. And being able to better study these magnificent and ecologically important species is vital to our understanding of the oceans and life on our planet. It is truly remarkable to have a single, affordable, safe, scalable tool that can simultaneously collect such a variety of data, a capability which has led our CEO to suggest that drones could be to marine mammal research what the invention of the microscope was to cellular biology.

 

SnotBot Expedition Goals

To date, Ocean Alliance has sent out three SnotBot expeditions, with increasingly ambitious goals:

Patagonia The objective was simple, to prove that whale blow could be collected using a drone. As this was such a novel concept, at this stage we weren’t even sure that it would be possible. We succeeded, proving that blow samples could be collected using a drone.

 

Sea of Cortez The objective was to increase the size of the samples. By trying out a number of different strategies and collection devices (like the sponge attached to a pole on SnotBot, at left) , by the end of the expedition we had managed to greatly increase the size of the samples we were able to collect.

 

Alaska  We had two objectives. a) Since we had increased the sample size, we now wanted to increase the sampling rate, i.e. how easily and quickly we could collect samples, because the more samples or data points collected, the better your data. We succeeded, collecting samples at a far higher rate than we had previously been able too. b) We conducted beta-testing on two new drones for whale research: EarBot and FLIRBot. EarBot is a waterproof drone with an attached hydrophone, which lands in the water near a whale/group of whales and records the sound they are producing. FLIRBot is a drone with a custom-attached InfraRed camera, primarily for studying whales in lowlight/night-time conditions.