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Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: A team effort

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Dear Friends,

With all the different players involved in this Parley SnotBot expedition, it was truly a team effort that made it the success that it was.

Here are a couple of short blogs from two of the Parley SnotBot Alaska team:

John Graham has been on every SnotBot expedition to date; he is our MacGyver, keeping the machines running, charging batteries and cleaning the drone’s after every flight (DNA contamination). He also catches and launches the drones. Catching a drone does come with some risk, particularly when a machine does not want to respond to the controls. After over 500 drone launch and recoveries, I thought that we had our safety protocols pretty well established. John caught a drone that was not responding to the radio controller; when he did, the situation fell apart as the drone throttled up on its own and became a risk to the whole crew. John threw it to the ground, but not before some serious cuts on his hands. John was wearing a helmet, safety glasses and gloves, but these new drones are powerful machines. Quick thinking on John’s part definitely prevented a more serious accident, and we now have protocols in place in case this type of situation comes up again.


Second opinions count.
 My first instinct [after the drone mishap] was to stay back on shore while the crew headed out for our daily research collection. I had arrived at this decision by taking into account a couple of factors. First, there is the fact that my altered physical abilities, due to an incident earlier in the expedition that resulted in 17 sutures, had changed my role on the team, preventing me from being a 100% contributor. Secondly, the boat we are using is jam-packed with nine crew members, drones, tech gear, batteries, laptops, camera gear, and a makeshift research lab station. All this makes getting around a real challenge.
 
The subtraction of one warm body, mine in this case, would give a little needed extra room for others to move about freely.

My second opinion on this matter was given by Iain, our team leader, who highly encouraged me to stay on board, contribute in whatever capacity I could, and we would all just make the best of the limited space we have available.

Well, I went with the second opinion, and boy, was that the right move.


 
In previous days, the whale population in our research area was a bit on the sparse side. Not so on this day! Large pods/ groups of humpbacks were bubble net feeding. There was breaching, pec slapping, lob tailing, and of course, lots of exhaled breath condensate! Oh, did I mention orca, too. But not just orca, breaching orca!! What an amazing sight.

Of course, all the activity did make it a challenge to collect samples, but Iain was up to the task, running his countless flight time experience through its paces.

All in all, a very good day. Sometimes a second opinion gets you to listen to your gut and not the logical part of your brain. I am very thankful that I did not let this amazing life experience pass me by.

Many thanks to Iain, my gut, and the incredible marine life that occupy this world with us, for giving me a story worth blogging about.
 
Thank you, John.

 

Kelly Cates is new to our team; she is a PhD student in Dr. Atkinson’s lab who will be involved in the data analysis. She is also keen to adopt SnotBot for her own research interests. She has collected snot from blue whales in the past using a long pole reaching out from a small boat:


Southeast Alaska is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet her secrets are often cloaked in fog, low laying clouds and cloying rain. This is the day we started out with, misting rain that hugged your every curve, a sunless multi-gray hued sky and not a critter on the horizon. This is not the day we ended up with. Between a pod of orcas, voracious bubble net feeders and a sunset that rendered words useless, we had a pretty alright day. That is, we were full on until we had to head home for fear of running out of fuel. As a newcomer to the Ocean Alliance team, I was quietly impressed with the speed and ease with which samples were collected. Vocally quiet. Inside my head I was berating myself for ever having tried to use a 21-foot pole to collect blow spray — how barbaric.

 

Drones provide access to animals previously only dreamed of. The speed with which a drone can approach animals, collect a sample, return to boat and then be out sampling again was mind boggling. We collected five samples in the time it would have taken a boat carefully maneuvering to a whale to collect one sample. The trouble with boat approaches is that the whale absolutely knows you are there and are notorious for Houdinii-ng their way out of sampling range. Research with free ranging cetaceans is a lot like Southeast Alaska. You spend a lot of time looking at nothing, but when the sun comes out there is no place else you would want to be. Cetacean research conducted with drones is going to lead to a lot more sunnier days. 
 
Thank you, Kelly.

No blog would be complete without Christian Miller’s photographs, so I have added a few that I hope are appropriate to the above stories.

Onwards. Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: Hard work, but we learned a lot!

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Dear Friends,

It’s not the best of times for science funding. So, there is enormous pressure when you are planning an expedition to set project goals too high and possibly try to collect too much data.

Would we do that?  Of course.  The goals of this expedition (in no order of priority) were to:

  •  Collect snot from a whale with our Parley SnotBot on live TV.
  •  Work with INTEL to develop an “in the wild” animal identification system and a volumetric’s system that can help us determine the health of a whale in real time.
  •  Further refine the protocols and tools for collecting snot with a drone.
  •  Test two new drones for collecting snot, the DJI Inspire 2 and the DJI Mavic Pro.
  •  Test a new snot collection system we call the Kendall/Graham Funnelator.
  •  Test EarBot with a new acoustic transmission system and amplifier.
  •  Test a Zenmuse FLIR camera over whales and try to record blow/body temperature.
  •  Collect at least 30 robust snot samples to be shared with our collaborators.
  •  Work with Dr. Baker and Dr. Atkinson’s labs to develop the appropriate collation and preservation protocols so that a variety of analysis can be conducted on the snot.
  •  Expand the number of species that we have collected snot from to further validate this technique.
  • In our case, we had nine and a half days to do this, three of which were with National Geographic, leaving us with six and a half days unencumbered on the water. Of course, we are in Alaska, so you have to count on at least two bad weather days. No pressure! (The next grant I write I am going include a budget for post expedition psychiatric counseling.) Looking back, we probably set the bar too high on this one, but that is another lesson learned.

Considering the above, how did we do? In the best of British understatements, I’d say, “Not bad at all.”

·         We collected snot from a humpback whale with the Parley SnotBot on a Live TV show broadcast nationally and internationally – A FIRST.

·         Thanks to our collaboration with INTEL, we identified an individual whale from a drone before the drone even made it back to the boat. We also set the stage for real time photogrammetry and volumetrics – A FIRST.

·         We collected snot from an orca; we had thought that orca blows would be too small and the drones too big, but we did it (with a small drone) – A FIRST.

·         We flew the DJI Zenmuse FLIR camera and attempted (we have to review this data) to record the blow and consequent body temperature of a whale – A FIRST.

·         We worked with four different organizations including marine mammal, oceanographic and technology institutions.

·         We successfully flew and collected snot using two new (for us) drones the DJI Inspire 2 and a Mavic Pro over whales – A FIRST.

·         We flew the EarBot (a drone that lands in the water near the whales and records their vocalizations) for Earth Live but they did not use the segment.

·         We tested / flew a new Snot Collection system – we call the Kendall/Graham funnelator

·         To date we have used plastic petri dishes to collect Snot. Dr. Atkinson’s lab suggested that there might be an issue with hormones sticking to the plastic, so we flew with glass petri dishes as well as plastic – A FIRST.

·         We trained staff and collaborators in over water and over whales, flight launch recovery and operations.

The weather seemed to be fighting us more on this trip than any we have done so far, but we realized that this was actually a benefit to the program, giving us a broader operations perspective. For example; what are the maximum wind conditions to collect snot in, and what is the best way to collect snot in windy conditions? Can we collect snot in the rain (we think so but it was hard to tell because the dishes were always wet). We will have to wait for lab analysis to answer these questions?

Last but not least, Kendall Mashburn from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks informed us that she positively identified hormones in the blue whale blows from our last expedition. She validated progestogen and cortisol and now she is looking to validate the existence of testosterone and aldosterone.  These hormones are primary reproductive and stress hormones, so this is great news.

At the end of the day it’s been a really hard-fought data expedition but it has also been one of the most productive, because of this we have learned a lot about our limitations and have realized how much more we still have to understand about this remarkable game-changing technology for whale research.

We are leaving with a long list of upgrades and problems to solve that will make this technology more effective and easier to use.  So much credit goes to the incredible Parley SnotBot Alaska team — Andy Rogan, John Graham and  Christian Miller; Fred Sharpe and Andy Szabo from the Alaska Whale Foundation; Ted Willke, Bryn Keller and Javier Turek from INTEL; Scott Baker, Shannon Atkinson, Kendall Mashburn and Kelly Cates form the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and all of the Ocean Alliance home team. Thanks are also due to Alex Tate and all of the Plimsoll Nat Geo production team and the crew of the Glacial Seal. I am very grateful to Amy and Dylan for putting up with a mad man for at least the last two months (maybe longer). Last but not least I want to thank our amazing hosts, Tinker and Gary at the Keex Kwaan Lodge – You guys are the BEST.  Thanks also to Patti for the great food. More blogs and incredible Christina Miller photographs to come!

Best Fishes from foggy Alaska.

Iain

 

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: Parley x INTEL

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Dear Friends,

As you are all aware, these trips by the nature of what we hope to achieve are always an adventure. This trip has been about the most challenging that I have ever done, a live TV show, partnering with INTEL, and testing four new drone setups and two new drones in Alaska!?!

The whale gods have been on our side, and we had another first yesterday: we collected Snot from orca whales using a DJI Mavic Pro – just amazing.  Even I had doubts that we could do this, but there was Snot in the dish so another first for the Parley SnotBot.

Our little boat was certainly full with the Parley SnotBot team, Alaska Whale Foundation, and the INTEL team on board, but what a great group of people.

Following is a blog from our newest friend Ted Willke, Senior Principal Engineer and Director of the Mind’s Eye Lab INTEL.  Our thanks go out to Bryn Keller and Javier Turek.

Ted Willke, center, and Fred Sharpe, right, photobombed by Iain Kerr

Ted Willke, center, and Fred Sharpe, right, photobombed by Iain Kerr

 

Coming into a new collaboration is never easy, especially when it involves subjects as diverse as marine biology, drones, and artificial intelligence.  But it’s a necessary dance if you want the kind of innovation we’re after — the kind that happens when diverse scientific fields collide.
 
This is the dance our Intel Labs team found itself in with Parley and Ocean Alliance this past month.  Javier Turek, Bryn Keller, and I were introduced to Iain Kerr and his team by Parley for the Oceans at the World Oceans Day conference at the UN.  The question posed to us was: How can artificial intelligence (AI) advance Ocean Alliance’s mission and whale biology … in the next 30 days??!!  We soon realized that we had a lot to learn about whales and Parley SnotBots, and fast!  But it was also immediately clear that our research team had a lot to offer.
 
Simply put, AI technology aspires to imbue machines with cognitive skills, like visual recognition.  AI equipped Parley SnotBots would clearly be a game changer for OA, even given OA’s existing game-changing techniques.  Today’s Parley SnotBots have cameras that are used for piloting and video capture.  But there’s a strong desire to do more with this data.  As Fred Sharpe put it, “In the age of modern sensors, we’re in a data maelstrom.   The real action is in the downstream processing.” And we knew that the right AI could take it on.
 
The stage was set, and we had two seriously ambitious goals: 1) finding a way to identify whales using images transmitted by Parley SnotBots, and 2) calculating a whale’s relative body composite index, a measure of its energy reserves and condition, from streaming video.  Our team, with its background in computing and machine learning techniques, felt up to the task.

Ted Willke preps drones for the National Geographic Earth Live shoot.

Ted Willke preps drones for the National Geographic Earth Live shoot.

 

But you’ve got to understand: these are tough tasks for AI even with ideal data and carefully groomed algorithms running on machines back in our lab.  So trying to solve such problems in a completely uncontrolled environment (weather, water, whales, drones) on a small ship out on the rough sea is nuts. Trying to get something together in four weeks for the National Geographic Earth Live broadcast — TOTALLY BANANAS!
 
There were other difficulties that we didn’t completely understand until we got to Kake, Alaska.  Ships like the Alaska Whale Foundation’s Paula T are like drone aircraft carriers.  The pace is fast and the space is cramped.  Any new technology has to be unintrusive, field-friendly and fuss-free.  Otherwise, it’s going overboard!
 
To complicate things further, we were still hacking code as we arrived in Kake.  We had never run the whale ID algorithm on images taken by a drone or fully validated the volumetrics analysis.  We really didn’t know if this stuff worked.  And we had never integrated our systems with Iain’s.

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

 

We figured out how to set up what amounted to a small computer lab on a ship we’d never seen.  The Earth Live dress rehearsal on July 8 came and went.  We continued to sweat it out.  With the Nat Geo team breathing down our necks, we hacked and hacked.
 
Then it was show time.  I won’t recap the gut-wrenching Earth Live affair since Iain described it in his recent post.  But I will say that it was one of the most harrowing adventures I’ve ever experienced.  We wrapped up our development as the show began.  By the end, Iain’s team had pulled off a Parley SnotBot collection miracle and our algorithms had made a positive ID on the same whale before the drone landed — a scientific first! (See photo at beginning of post)

Fred Sharpe, Iain Kerr, Javier Turek, Ted Willke.

Bryn Keller, Iain Kerr, Javier Turek, and Ted Willke

 

You’d think things would’ve let up after the Nat Geo team said goodbye, but they haven’t.  With the show out of the way, we immediately returned to the primary research mission and our associated computer science research.  With just a few days to collect the data needed to power the research for the next few months (and before the next expedition!), it has not been easy.  As Bryn put it, “Writing code while tracking whales around at 35 knots (on occasion) over rough waters (a lot) is really interesting.”
 
Even though it’s been a grind and major adrenaline dump, our enthusiasm remains unhampered.  How could it be otherwise, with whales breaching, lunge feeding, and checking out our boat?  Quoting Javier as he watched a humpback lunge feed in Keku Strait just a hundred feet from our boat on the morning of our last day, “This is FREAKING AWESOME!!!”
 
We’ll be back and we’ll be packing more AI when we do.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

 

Best Fishes from Alaska.

Iain

Parley SnotBot, Alaska expedition powered by Intel: Stunned in SE Alaska

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Dear Friends,

I hope that you got a chance to see us on Nat Geo’s Earth Live; for us it was a crazy emotional rollercoaster but not an experience we would have wanted to miss. Here is a YouTube link to a segment: We were featured in four segments during the show, but to us at least this was the most exciting.

It’s now about 30 hours later, we had a regular SnotBot data collection day today, but I have to say that I am still ABSOLUTELY STUNNED by all that happened yesterday. I still cannot process how it all came together so successfully! So here is the back story.

Per Sleepless in SE Alaska, when Alex Tate, the director, and I said “Let’s do this,” it was with an abundance of whales in mind and on my part a total ignorance as to what a live show entailed.

Just the amount of people and equipment involved was massive (see photo below of some of equipment cases, not personal bags, on the docks).

The Plimsoll Nat Geo team consisted of:

An airplane with a Cineflex camera.
A satellite truck at the end of a dirt road alongside a fully extended crane with an antenna on top.
A full satellite transmission team & equipment on the boat.
A director, cameraman, rigger, and assistant on the boat.
And of course Fred Sharpe and Andy Szabo, from the Alaska Whale Foundation.

The idea was that there would be four cameras running consecutively during our live portion of the show:
1. Live feed from SnotBot
2. Live feed of SnotBot. Christians drone (filming Iain’s drone) and what a bloody amazing job he did!  I just took off after the whale with no consideration of how hard it might be to follow and film me by drone, and he kept me in frame!
3. A cameraman filming us
4. Aerial shot of boat and drones from the Cineflex camera.

The process was also pretty complicated. We were plugged into live feed cables and microphones, the live feeds were then transmitted from the boat up to the airplane and then down to the satellite truck and then back up via satellite to NYC. And it all had to work seamlessly or else we would not be featured in the show (think lots of electrical connectors in the rain).

While I was blown away by the professionalism of the whole team, we had some issues :-}. Basically, the area in which we could look for whales was limited by the audio and satellite transmission capacity, the height of the ceiling of the plane, etc.  My estimate is that we were given a 5-square-mile area (or less) in which to find a whale.  When I got this information I really, REALLY began to panic; up until then we could not find a whale in 20 square miles let alone 5 miles, and by the way we had to do it at 4:30 pm!! INSANE. We did have one whale that we followed for over an hour, and each time it came up it only did one blow. Basically impossible to collect from.

Of course the weather was miserable, and it was predicted to get worse for the afternoon’s live event. We even discussed not doing a dress rehearsal earlier in the day in case the drones got waterlogged and crashed – resulting again in not being featured in the show (we did have one spare).

By 1 pm I was in full-on desperation mode, we had seen and approached a couple of whales, but they swam out of the coverage zone. The whales were just not there. So, the director said to me, “We will go live to you at 4:30 and you can launch SnotBot and then we will go back to NYC and then you have an hour and a half to collect Snot.  Maybe we will cut back to you live as you do this collection or maybe they will say ‘This just happened.’”

So we are all prepped on the top deck, I had a microphone on me (I was reminded not to swear) and they said “3,2,1 we are live……”
I said “There’s a whale. Lets launch the drone” (no whale…sorry). As I hope you saw, I gave the drone to Andy and he prepped it. I flew the drone out of Andy’s hands and I will remember this moment for the rest of my life………A BLOOMING WHALE SURFACED 500 FEET AWAY RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME – WHHHAAAAATTTTTTTT!  IMPOSSIBLE!!!!!

As they say, the rest is history, on the third try (the last blow) I got the sample. But how?

What the heck just happened?  A whale surfaced at the right time (almost to the second) at the right place (so I could see it while flying) and the crew in NYC who were going to cut away stayed with the shot to the bitter end through three blows. Millions of people were snotted!!!!

Again, HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE??? If there was a lottery in Kake, I’d be out buying tickets right now. This has to have been a million to one shot.

We have a remarkable SnotBot field team (in the photo above, the SnotBot field team from left: Andy Rogan, John Graham, Iain Kerr, and Christian Miller, with cameraman Scott Tibbles and the director of our segment, Alex Tate.). The staff at our headquarters and our Founder/President Roger Payne all worked hard to make this happen – so yes we worked hard and were well prepared, but I still don’t understand – HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?  And who/where is that whale, so can we thank him or her????

As my wife, Amy, watched the snot collection she thought that it was a prerecorded segment. How could you go directly from a commercial break to collecting snot from a whale LIVE???? I truly don’t know, but we did it!! (Do NOT ask me to do it again live).

And I forgot to mention, right before the shoot the rain stopped and the sun came out; 30 minutes after the shoot we were trying to film a segment for the edited evergreen copy of the show that will come out at a later date and the rain came down again in buckets and we had to scramble to get all of the equipment under cover – look for that in the evergreen copy.

We will be back out on the water the rest of this week, further developing the SnotBot protocols and collecting samples for our partners at Scott Baker’s lab at Oregon State and Shannon Atkinson’s lab at the University of Alaska. We are grateful beyond measure for this opportunity and for our collaboration with Parley, but I guess the reason we are all here is that we are grateful beyond measure for the whales.

The team may not take out the boat tomorrow to collect snot – we are going to experiment with walking on water!!

Next blog will be talking more about the amazing work that our INTEL team are doing.

STUNNED in SE Alaska.

Iain

Parley SnotBot x Intel Alaska expedition: Sleepless in SE Alaska

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Dear Friends,

While we always metaphorically expect the unexpected on an expedition like this, you really hope that it won’t happen to you.  Especially when you are working with a live television production.

The last few days have been incredibly tough, in 2 and a half days on the water we have probably seen less than twenty whales and a lot of those we only saw their far away blows.  Last year we had literally hundreds of whales around us, we even joked that we could have done the SnotBot work from the shore because there we so many whales. Of course, you expect to have good and bad years with more or less whales but hundreds one year and less than 30 the next? The whales are in Alaska of course……just not here.

Luckily we have a remarkable team, or else the situation could be even worse.
14 people from the Nat Geo / Plimsoll production team.
4 core SnotBot team.
2 from the Alaska Whale Foundation
3 from INTEL.

By end of day yesterday we had not collected a single snot sample.  Today the live rehearsal started at 4:00 and at about 5:30 pm NYC was going to cut to us to join a drone live over a whale (WHAAAT?).  We had a successful snot collection earlier in the day but the whale swam out of our satellite coverage area.  For the next five hours we did not see a blow.  Then we saw a solitary whale that we followed for over an hour that would surface and blow once, yes once – I was losing my mind (as I think was the director Alex).

The Inspire 2 drones have about a 30 min flight time so about 10 min before we were to go live Christian and I launched our drones with little hope of getting more than nice water and Alaska shots from the air.  Two minutes before we were to go live I managed to get over our single blow whale (too high to collect snot) but I could see it though the water and it was not diving deep so… I was able to stay with it as it swam just under the water, we went live and it surfaced and we got the blow.  Unblooming believable!!!!!! the only scary thing now is we have to do better than this tomorrow for the real live show (8:00 Eastern Time Nat Geo channel).

The spectacularly good news is that the INTEL team hit it out of the ball park with regards to the volumetric’s and real time photo ID data project that they have been working on.  I have attached two images, both of which represent (to the best of my knowledge) firsts in the field of whale biology.  The first image shows the automatic volumentics measurement that was conducted in flight over a whale, in real time (note the drone just above and to the left).  The second shows a whale whose identity was confirmed before the drone made it back to the boat. Just amazing, I am so tired right now I cannot give this Ted, Bryn & Javier the appropriate credit for what they have pulled off in such a short time but we will do a longer blog on this after the live TV show.

 

Alaska has tried to make up for the lack of whales with other animal abundances, Christian Miller has of course caught many of these with his amazing camera skills, alas the internet here is so slow I can only attach very low res files.

Thank you again to our friends at Parley for the Oceans for working with us to make this the incredible project that it is. Thank you also to the  23 people in the one of a kind Alaska SnotBot team.

I ask all of you to pray to the whale gods for us, we pulled off what I think is a million to one shot today and we don’t want to work to these odds tomorrow.

Hoping to get some sleep tomorrow night after successful Snot collection on live TV!!!!!

Snotless in Alaska (for one more day).

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #5 – SnotBot has a brother

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This is the fifth in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

The weather took a turn for the worse today with wind and rain – but we had a master plan – we tested for the first time (with whales) our new research drone EarBot.

What is EarBot? you ask – As I am sure that you know whales live in a world of sound. Communication, feeding, predator detection, reproduction: all of the most important aspects of their lives rely on acoustics. Acoustics are a gateway into the world of whales. EarBot is an initiative to study whales acoustically using drones – with the same philosophy as SnotBot, getting research tools close to the animals (while keeping researchers away) and collecting high quality data without the whale even knowing. Now, we have an opportunity to link our president and founder’s (Dr. Roger Payne) expertise in bioacoustics to our present expertise in robotics by attaching hydrophones to a waterproof drone that can land in the water near a whale & transmit back to researchers both the sounds that the animals are making and the sounds that they are hearing and video; creating a mobile, flexible and practical platform for studying whales acoustically: EarBot.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-40
Existing methods of acoustic data collection broadly fall under two categories: fixed and vessel based hydrophones. Both undoubtedly have valuable applications, but are limited by the flexibility they can provide. Fixed hydrophones are taken out to sea and moored in place, either on the seafloor, in the water column or at the surface. They can be left at sea for months at a time and are excellent for collecting large, long-term data sets. They are however complex and expensive tools which require significant resources to deploy, maintain and recover; and are highly inflexible. For times when more flexibility is required, scientists use hydrophones deployed from boats. This automatically introduces a problem. The very presence of a boat (particularly if the engine is on) is what scientists call a confounding variable that could change the behaviour of the whale & diminish the quality of the acoustic data collected.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-41
To avoid disturbing the whale, the engine can be cut. This, in turn, reduces the flexibility of the data collection. If the whales move off to another location, the scientists have a choice to make between getting closer to the whales but in the process potentially disturbing them, or leaving them undisturbed but being too far away to gather good data. This is a decision they must face: whales are dynamic animals, often moving through their environment at speed in unpredictable ways. It is perfectly logical to have an equally dynamic and flexible way of studying them, yet until now this has been somewhat of a fantasy. Enter EarBot. EarBot will allow us to follow a group of whales as they navigate through their environment, collecting acoustic data from undisturbed whales behaving in a far more natural manner. Current drones have a range of over 3 miles, so the researcher (and consequently their research vessel/platform) could be an enormous distance away as you collect data.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-42Moreover, EarBot could get much closer to the whales than the traditional methods of acoustic data collection. The closer your hydrophone to the whale, the more acoustic information you receive. This is something we can easily associate with: the closer you are to a sound, the better you can hear it. As scientists we are focused on applying this technology to our own specific research goals/interests. Of course, as with SnotBot, the more we consider this tool, the more potential applications become apparent. Indeed, much of the value of the EarBot program could come from developing it as a tool for other researchers/interested parties.

As with SnotBot we hand launch the EarBot but that is where the similarities end, we fly EarBot to a location land in the water and turn the engines off. A separate battery runs the hydrophone and the FM transmitter sending the signal back to the boat, we record sounds on EarBot and on a recorder on the boat. As a control we have the same calibrated hydrophone on the boat recording all that we hear. As if this was not enough, EarBot has a camera on a stabilized waterproof gyro that allows us to send back live images form either above the water when flying or below the water when concurrently recording undersea sounds. We can even pan and tilt this camera.

Today we conducted 7 EarBot flights, on 3 occasions we took off from the water and flew EarBot to another location closer to the whales and landed back in the water and turned the engines off. We were getting some electronic interference so we will not be winning a Grammy for the recordings but we are over the moon with these first tests and results – huge thanks go to the Big G Foundation who supported the development of the first EarBot prototype and to Parley who are supporting this expedition.

Best Fishes from Alaska.

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #6 – FLIR

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This is the sixth and final dispatch sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

We have just spent our last day on the water and I will admit to being a bit sad. While I am very excited to get home to my family there is something very cathartic about being totally focused on a mission. The single focus of collecting data, backing up data, eating sleeping and doing it all over again. Every morning we had breakfast at 7:00 and were on the water by 8:00. Typically, we got back to the dock around 7:00 PM although some days we stayed out until 9:00. Tonight there are meant to be aurora but I don’t know if I can stay awake that late.

It has been a totally exhilarating trip, while the weather has not been the best (5 windy rainy days out of 10) the whales have been just spectacular. We have seen hundreds of whales, including calves, with every type of feeding behavior and play. At least once a day we would look across the water and see whale blows all around us. On occasion we would shut our eyes and just listen to the cacophony of whale blows. This has been an extraordinary successful expedition, we have collected over 42 snot samples, tested our new drone EarBot and we had one more experiment up our sleeve.

In winds less than 15 knots and no rain we flew SnotBot, in the rain we flew EarBot, so what do you do in the fog? Well we had a plan for that too FLIRBot. The FLIR corporation leant us a FLIR Vue Pro camera. FLIR means Forward Looking Infra-Red. FLIR are the world leaders in night vision cameras and we wanted to know what sort of whale perspective we could get from a FLIR camera mounted on SnotBot. John Graham built a custom Gyro so that we could mount the FLIR camera behind our regular camera on our Inspire 1 (see attached photo). This gave us real time comparative images between regular and night vision. Alas the FAA would not allow us to fly our drone’s at night, nor would they let us fly unless we had at least a mile visual range so we flew at the edge of the fog banks during the early morning and intermittently through the day.

I see the FLIR VUE PRO drone camera as another example of how drones can dramatically change the game – we were in awe of this technology and the potential, as you will see from the attached photos it. Could we see whale blows on FLIR, Yes, could we see the whale body above the water, Yes. Could we see the whale’s footprint, Yes. Interestingly enough FLIR cannot see through the water, so we could not see below the water as you can with a regular camera, but a regular camera cannot see anything at night or see comparative body/water temperatures. When a whale blew the blowholes looked like two bright eyes appearing in the night and winking off.

We would calibrate the cameras by taking a shot of our boat (see image) and then fly out to the whales. What you have to remember here is that if this was night the left side image would be black but you would still see the right side of the image (probably with more clarity in the cooler air).

Boat FLIR comparison

Whale FLIR ComparisonA couple of the whales we followed had an extra hotspot on their bodies – the tip of the dorsal fin. We were also pleasantly surprised to see circular blue spots in the water behind a whale – these blue spots represented the cool water brought up to the surface by the tail flukes as they swam. Dr. Fred Sharp the Senior Scientist on this team liked to talk about how whales are mixing up the different layers as they swim through them (he actually said – thermal perturbation agents). You can see this in the attached water perturbations shot.

Water Pertubations
I have to say that we have been humbled by the Alaska Hospitality we have received. From Tinker and Gary at the Kake Kwaan Lodge, to Alaska Industrial Hardware (inverter), Elizabeth at Petersburg Medical Center (Petri dishes) and Michelle at the Department of Natural Sciences, University of SE Alaska (small Petri dishes) and Alaska Seaplanes for delivering our packages for ridiculously low prices ($11). The community spirit up here is something to be admired and emulated. We thank you all for you interest and support of our work. Funding permitting, we hope to be back next year to continue this work.

Last but not least I would like to thank the staff at Ocean Alliance for minding the fort, our logistics coordinator John Atkinson and my family for allowing me to run off on these expeditions a number of times a year.

Hoping for a smooth passage back to Juneau & wishing you all the best.

Iain and the Alaska SnotBot A team.

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #4 – I’m running out of synonyms

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This is the fourth in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

To review:
Day 1 we had a 100-mile passage down from Juneau to our study site Frederick Sound and our port of operations Kake, the passage was tough but we were very excited to be in SE Alaska.
Day 2 the weather remained bad, blowing 15 Knots plus but we collected 2 Snot samples.
Day 3 bad weather again but we collected 5 samples.
Day 4 the weather cleared by midday, the wind and seas calmed down and we collected 8 samples.
Yesterday (day 5) we had a bit of fog in the morning with minimal wind and calm seas and we collected 15 Snot samples.
Total samples so far 30!

Our goal was a minimum of 25 samples so we are over the moon. On top of this we have seen some of the most spectacular whale behavior I have ever seen. I am now spoilt, I just can’t imagine studying whale’s from only a boat and not having and eye in the sky.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-5As much as I hated the bad weather it did give the team time to work out how to work together on such a small boat and it gave us a chance to shake down our routines and protocols. Also we have learnt a tremendous amount about flying over Humpback whales and whales in general. We have been making a punch list ever day of variables that we should be considering during our interpretation of the data such as, whale direction and wind direction. If the wind is blowing at 90 degrees to the whale’s passage, then you have to run parallel (downwind) of the whale to collect snot. If there is a group of whales, you always want to pick the upwind whale so that a second whale does not contaminate the sample. We are now up to about 40 variables and we are planning on writing a report for National Marine Fisheries so that others can benefit from our experiences.

We saw a lot of bubble net feeding today by individuals and groups, just spectacular. We also saw a lot of breeching and pec flapping. I even saw two whales lunge in opposite directions next to each other.

DSC04236We have three days left in Frederick Sound and then the passage back to Juneau. Tomorrow we hope to test a new drone a partner to SnotBot – a drone that we hope will give us a completely different insight into the world of whales than does SnotBot. Another piece of data for the biological jig saw puzzle.

Onwards Upwards, Fingers crossed.

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #3

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This is the third in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

We were out on the water by 7:30 am yesterday, but it was still cloudy and raining so we were a bit down. We don’t like to collect Snot in the rain because then we have to process every petri dish. The droplets of rain in the dish could be Snot so we have to process every dish which is a lot of work for us and even more for the analysis lab.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

By 10:00 am the skies cleared the seas started to calm down and the team worked like a well-oiled machine (albeit in a very small boat). We collected 6 samples in the next 3 hours and then changed location close to Turnabout Island about 10 miles away. The first thing we saw here was a bird in distress just off the shoreline, we sent up a drone and realized that it was not in distress but it was a bald eagle swimming shore with a fish so big that it could not fly. It swam amazingly well and reached the shore successfully (with dinner).

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

The water around us seemed to be boiling with life and soon 4 whales turned up and were swimming less than one body length from the shoreline side lunging. The footage we recorded is absolutely spectacular and we collected 2 more samples.

Shore LungeThe day was saved by the fact we could charge our flight batteries all day form the boat batteries. The previous day our inverted failed and we had a new one flown in (the same day) from Juneau (for $11) from Alaska Industrial Hardware & Alaska Seaplanes. Only in Alaska!!

We had a chance to have 2 drone’s in the air, one recording the other collecting Snot. Our Inspire 1 drone’s worked flawlessly.

We finally pulled into the dock last night at 8:00 pm exhausted but elated with a total of 15 samples, stunning video footage of whale behavior and memories that will last a life time.

Foggy this morning – but we are sure that it will soon burn off so we are heading out.

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #2

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This is the second in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

Well we are still fighting the weather, 15 to 20 knots of wind and pretty constant rain. I think that SnotBot excels in wind speeds of up to 15 knots, above that the wind lays the whale blows flat and launch and recovery become more of a challenge.

That said we can’t just sit in the hotel, so we went out into Frederick Sound today. The low clouds and fog on the mountains was amazing to see along with a lot of whales that we could not get to. At times we were bucking 3 ft seas in our small boat which made working impossible so we hugged the shoreline until we found some whales in a semi sheltered bay. Wind speeds were still peaking at over 15 knots but the waters were calmer. The whale gods then rewarded our persistence with 2 Snot Samples in what can only be described as extreme conditions. Typically, SnotBot hovers approx 12 feet above a whale’s blowhole to catch the blow. Because of the strong winds we had to fly SnotBot downwind of the whale that we were trying to collect Snot from. In the first two attached photos I was flying backwards downwind waiting for the whale to surface upwind of me and exhale. Many practice flights in my back yard paid off today. All of my photos are screen grabs from the SnotBot Inspire 1- 4K camera, I have also attached a photo from our cameraman extraordinaire Christian Miller. The side lunge 3 photo and Christian’s photo are from the second day before the weather deteriorated.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

Downwind Snot Collection 2

We are working out of the town of Kake, a location that you can only get to by boat or plane. The town has a special meaning to my family because (as many of you know) this is where I adopted a dog that was a great companion for 16 years. Clearly Keiku (the dog) had Kake’s soul, the people we have met here have been amazing, as we walked to the grocery store the other day (there are no restaurants or bars) every person who drove or walked by said hello or waved. Kake First Nation is letting us tie up our boat right next to an old cannery that was shut down years ago and fell into disrepair. Kake First Nation are now restoring the old buildings which is great to see, they need a lot of work, like some other buildings I know.

KeikuLast but not least we could not be better looked after than we are by our hosts at the Kake Kwaan Lodge. We certainly hit the jackpot with the right location to work out of, now we just need a bit more of that elusive Alaska summer.

Tomorrow the weather is meant to be getting better, Ill keep you posted.

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #1

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This is the first in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition. 

Day one (Thursday) was 6 people and way too much equipment making the 100-mile passage from Juneau to our study site off Kake in a 22 ft boat. A five-hour boat ride turned into 10 due to bad weather, so the less said about that the better.

Day two (Friday) was quite the opposite and spectacular for unconventional reasons. Weather forecasts said the same as the previous day, 15 knots, rough seas and rain, none of which are good for Snot collection or 22 ft boats. Regardless our time here is limited so we headed out on to the water just after 8:00 am.

It took us roughly an hour to get out into Frederick Sound and we were with whales immediately. No rain, no wind but heavy wet fog and lots of whales (that we could not see, but could hear blowing).

During a small break in the fog we made a humpback whale SnotBot discovery, I flew over a couple of whales that were lunge feeding on their side.

It turns out that this is the perfect whale behavior for snot collection, the whales lunge to the surface on their side, close their mouths to push out the water (still on their side) then roll up into a horizontal position and exhale, this whole process probably takes around 15 to 30 seconds.

The predictable nature of this method gave me the time to get SnotBot into the perfect position over the whale when it blows to collect Snot.

Alas after this revelation the fog closed in, so we stopped the boats engine and drifted in the fog, miles from anywhere. We ate our lunch, peanut butter and apples (that another story) in the fog as the whales ate theirs, blowing all around us. The unscientific description of this would be magical.


Over 19 years ago Amy and I were in Kake and this is where we adopted our dog Keiku – I will admit that a local street sign brought a smile to my face.


A spectacular Alaska wildlife day – I can’t wait for tomorrow’s discoveries.

Iain