Our drone for whale research affectionately called “SnotBot,” created in collaboration with our partners at Olin College of Engineering, was recently featured on the Discovery Channel series “Daily Planet.” In the segment Iain Kerr and our Robotics Team join Olin College robotics students with Dr. Andrew Bennett at our headquarters in Gloucester, MA to demonstrate how drones can help us understand what human activities cause whales stresses by allowing us to sample mucus containing stress hormones (plus viruses, bacteria and DNA) from their exhalations without disturbing the animal:
One of the initiatives that Ocean Alliance has been pushing hard on over the last year is the development of a robotics program. When our organization was founded in the 1970s most people believed you had to kill whales to learn about them. Our founder, Dr. Roger Payne, was a pioneer in developing benign research tools–techniques that can be used to collect data without killing the animals. Read More
This week a group of educators, students and robotics enthusiasts from our home city of Gloucester, Massachusetts met with Iain Kerr and staff at our new Robotics Lab to talk about how this space can be put to use for the benefit of the community. On first entering the new lab a couple of the attendees asked if they could move in. Visitors were able to check out our collection of drones and simulators, and had a nighttime demonstration flight of a drone.
During the day Ocean Alliance is aggressively pursuing projects on a number of different fronts in the field of marine robotics. Working with Olin College we are trying to develop drones that can collect a variety of data from our oceans with minimal effort from the handlers. But having the space open to local students and educators on evening Hobby Nights will add resources and collaboration opportunities to locals with an interest in robotics.
This work is supported in part by a grant from the Applied Material Foundation and the generosity of Antonio Bertone who provided the recycled shipping container that currently houses our lab at the Paint Factory in Gloucester.
When Ocean Alliance started in the whale conservation business in the 1970s, one of our primary goals was to show that you didn’t have to kill a whale to learn about it. What we were doing then was developing benign research tools and techniques. I like to think of OA as being a pathfinder organization. We are a small and agile organization that can respond quickly to emerging challenges and issues. Read More
Our Robotics Program with Olin College of Engineering, developing new benign research techniques to study whales, has always been popular at events we attend and schools we visit, but since SnotBot was covered in the Boston Globe and was a runner-up for a Drone Social Innovation Award the floodgates have opened. Read More
Our Robotics Program is in the running for a $10K grant called the Drone Social Innovation Award. Our video entry was created by Eliza Muirhead with footage from Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 and features Odyssey crew and Olin College robotics students testing newly-developed benign research techniques. The more views and “Likes” on YouTube the better, so enjoy and feel free to share!
Upon the completion of the robotics leg of Operation Toxic Gulf this week, our local crewmember Dan Haefner contacted the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). It turns out that a couple of Olin College alumni work there and the Olin students working on board the RV Odyssey were invited for a tour of the facility. Later on that day staff members from IHMC came for a tour of the Odyssey. I had the good fortune to meet with a number of staff and I had great conversations with John Carff and Johnny Godowski. Amongst other things, John is into micro air vehicles and Johnny works on high-speed legged robotic systems. Read More
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. Read More
Ocean Alliance has had a busy spring. The research vessel Odyssey is having a successful campaign in the Gulf of Mexico with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and reconstruction has started on brick buildings A, B and the chimney of our headquarters–the Paint Factory. Our plan remains to put our robotics lab upstairs in building A, but our robotics program is outpacing the readiness of the building. Antonio Bertone to the rescue. Read More
When we first started talking with Olin College of Engineering in 2010 about a collaboration, they were very interested in Ocean Alliance providing their students with real world (or applied) challenges. A rapidly growing part of our oceanographic research program is the field of robotics, particularly as it applies to developing benign research techniques (those that cause no harm). SailBot, SnotShot and SnotBot are three good examples. As Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr has spoken at different schools and events he has noticed a lot of interest in this field of robotics, so from our work with Olin and this interest came the idea to build the Applied Robotics Research Laboratory and Club at the Paint Factory, our headquarters in Gloucester, MA. Read More
This June we will be moving ahead with SnotBot and SnotShot trials in Gloucester Harbor with our partners at Olin College of Engineering. SnotShot is a device we’ve built to simulate whale blows, is a machine that will collect these exhalations looking for viruses, bacteria, DNA and hormones.
In preparation for the trial, Iain Kerr and John Graham recently made a trip to Olin to work with the students of Dr. Andrew Bennett. We sat down as a team to talk about how we could best fine tune the instruments to represent all that we might encounter when we work with wild animals. For example, the SnotShot will sit in a small kayak with a hydrophone in the water to record any propeller noise, a small camera with a microphone to record airborne noise and video the drone approach, a vertical anemometer to check ambient maximum wind speed, and a horizontal anemometer to check maximum vertical wind speed from the drone. Before taking the drones out students at Olin will be flying over a pressure plate to get accurate measurements of downwash created by the drone.
The purpose here is not just to do trial flights and collect simulated whale blow data, but also to collect all the info we can about what a whale might hear, see and feel when approached by a drone.
When we move on to animal encounters we will bring the SnotShot with us, as in this type of experiment you always need control data. We need to be able to compare what’s in the water with what’s in the whale blow since a large part of the whale blow is seawater.
Thanks to the students of Olin for all of your hard work—we look forward to seeing you in Gloucester!
At Ocean Alliance we are always looking for new ways to find and track marine mammals, by day and night. Currently, for at least twelve hours a day we’re shut down, but a new technology could open up a whole new realm of studying whales at night. Read More
When you develop any technology to work with wildlife, particularly endangered species such as marine mammals, you want to get all of your prototypes, testing, and dry runs completed before you go out into the field. As we continue to develop our drone, SnotBot, that will be used to collect Exhaled Breath Condensate (EBC or whale blows) looking for viruses, bacteria, DNA, and hormones, we needed a machine that could simulate a whale blow so we could test all aspects of SnotBot including EBC collection protocols, whale approach and effect protocols, and our systems for collecting and bringing back EBC. Read More
In an afternoon practice session Iain Kerr and John Graham worked on the technology and flight practice of the drones we affectionately call SnotBot. We are working with NOAA on permitting, as this is a new field of marine mammal research, and are still raising funds for this project but we’re excited by the possibilities. Read More
Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr and team members Dan Albani and John Graham made another visit to Dr. Drew Bennett at Olin College of Engineering on Monday. We are pushing hard to make our headquarters, the Paint Factory in Gloucester, MA, into a fully functioning oceanographic research center this year and to do that we need a laboratory and docks. The laboratory will be multi-use, but the lead initiative is a robotics lab. This will be a space that is not only used by Ocean Alliance and Olin College for our marine projects, but a space that we hope will be used by school groups and others who are interested in applied engineering solutions. [Pictured – Iain Kerr and Drew Bennett. The yellow copter is a dedicated film platform that we plan to use to document animal interactions with other drones]
For the OA team, going to Olin is a bit like going to a giant toy factory. The equipment they have is remarkable — not only the finished products such as multicopters and airplanes but also the technology that they use such as 3D printers and fine-scale milling machines. We walk through their spaces and they advise us on what worked well for them and what did not. We had a long planning session on the next stages for our SnotBot Program (a small drone that will be used to collect physical samples of whale blows). It should be an exciting year for this partnership.
[Below] Iain Kerr and Olin students Mike and Silas in front of a small milling machine. A drone can be seen on the computer screen and parts can be made on the milling machine. The two black and silver machines in the background are 3-D printers
Dr. Bennett and his students showing Iain a hexacopter (a five engine drone)