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SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Perseverance pays off

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Yesterday was one of those typical wildlife days, a day when everything seems to be against you and you think that all is lost and then, in the last hour, it all comes together.

We like to get out on the water as early as we can, 7:00 a.m. on the boat means a 5:30 wake-up call to get ready and get down to the marina. We typically stay out until 6:30 p.m. because we have been seeing feeding activity late in the evening. We are working from the premise that during the day the blue whales’ food (krill) is down deep, and the whales are doing random deep dives to feed (meaning it is a lot harder to track them, but they spend a lot more time at the surface between dives). To help us try to be at the right place at the right time with a SnotBot in the air, we record the length of the whales dives so we can look for patterns; if a whale keeps regular dive cycles of approximately 7 minutes, we know that to be ready to collect snot we need to get a SnotBot up into the air at 6 minutes and 30 seconds after it dove.

Our day started with 20 knots of wind, so we kept delaying our departure, until at last at around 2:00 p.m. the winds seemed to be diminishing, so we headed out onto the water. We motored North from Loreto for over an hour and did not see a single blow. Finally just before 4:00 p.m., we saw a blow, then two, then a total of eight blows around us. You can imagine we were over the moon; we had found a group of blue whales!

Excitement faded to frustration as the random pattern of dives meant that we were not able to get to the right place at the right time. Our DJI Inspire 1 can fly at over 40 knots, so in most cases we could get a SnotBot to the whale but they were only doing two or three blows at the surface so all I was getting was video footage of blue whales diving. More typical behavior is for the whales to stay at the surface for six or seven blows. Multiple blows at the surface typically gives us enough time to collect snot, we think that in this case they we just doing shallow dives for krill and so did not have the need for extended surface time or blows. Did no one tell these whales that SnotBot was here and we were making a documentary?

By about 5:45 p.m. the sun was going down, we were all tired and sunburnt, and the camera team was losing light, so it looked as if we were going to be skunked. To be fair we were near a whale once but there was a whale watching boat there at the same time and the National Park had requested that we did not fly when tourists were near the whales. As much as we wanted to go back into port, we decided to persevere and stay out till 6:30 p.m.

At around 6:00 p.m. the situation changed dramatically, the water around us seemed to come alive with bubbling krill and the whales started going into full speed surface feeding mode. In the blink of an eye we had whales lunging and surface feeding everywhere (including right next to our boat). Where did all these whales come from?

This was our last day with the Nutopia film team; the one shot they did not have was video of a whale near our boat to give some perspective of the whale’s size. They also wanted Christian to get photos of SnotBot in a blow (below).

Collecting biological data from whales is harder than many people think; SnotBot is helping us with this challenge but the reality is that persistence is still a key factor. We were tired and ready to go home, but we decided to stay the course, and as a consequence, hit it out of the ball park.

From the Sea of Cortez, wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Cheers,

Iain

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: How big are blue whales?

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To describe the size of different objects, we often make comparisons to various everyday items such as school buses or an Olympic sized swimming pool. When the objects we refer to reach a certain size, it can be difficult for us to truly comprehend just how large they are, and we switch off, no longer able to visualize them effectively.

Animals, for the most part, our well within our boundaries of comprehension. An elephant is an enormous animal, yet it is not so different from our own size that we cannot process and understand it.

When we get to the large whales, we begin to cross this boundary. The largest whales of all are difficult to visualize and the comparisons we use become extreme. Blue whales are animals made for superlatives. They are the largest animals ever to have existed on our planet; 99% of species which have ever lived on our planet have gone extinct. How fortunate we are to live at the same time as these great leviathans.

This latest SnotBot expedition has focused upon these enormous animals. I am fortunate enough to have seen most of the great whales, yet this expedition is my first time seeing blue whales, and they truly dwarf any other whales in both length and sheer size/weight. I’m going to throw out a few size comparisons; try to visualize, try to comprehend, the scale of these animals.

 

A blue whale’s tongue can weigh as much as an adult elephant. IT’S TONGUE. Try to picture a tongue the size of an elephant.

Adult blue whales need to eat around 8,000 pounds of food per day. That is the weight equivalent of 60 average-sized humans. Every day… They are of course not eating humans, but tiny shrimp-like organisms called krill; 8,000 pounds of krill = 40 million individual krill.

They can grow to 100 feet in length. I still struggle to comprehend this, but it really struck home with me on our first day out on the water with the whales. A blue whale lunged out of the water It lunged directly away from us, yet its head was only 25 feet away from us. This means that some of its body must have been UNDERNEATH our boat. We estimated the whale was 80 feet long. If it surfaced 25 feet from our boat, and our boat was about 10 feet long, this means that the whale’s tail/fluke would have been about 45 feet on the other side of our boat.

Here is another fact: The global population of blue whales, decimated by 20th century whaling, is currently estimated to be roughly around 7% of its pre-whaling population, around 15,000 animals. Try and comprehend that; 15,000 animals representing an entire species. The largest species which has ever existed on planet earth. Many modern sports stadiums can hold 4 or 5 times this number of people. My university had more students than the entire global population of blue whales.

SnotBot is a tool which can help us understand these animals, and other endangered whales, in order that we can better protect them — and they desperately need our protection. There are many species or sub-populations of whale on the verge of extinction: The Baiji or Chinese river dolphin has already gone extinct. The Vaquita porpoise of the Sea of Cortez looks set to follow (sorry to be blunt, but it’s true). Maui’s dolphin is not far behind. The North Pacific right whale population is estimated to be around 30 individuals, Western Pacific gray whales under 150, Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales and Arabian Sea humpback whales under 100, Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale under 40. The largest pre-whaling blue whale population, in the Southern Ocean, is around 1% of its pre-whaling levels. This is a depressing fact: over 30 years after the cessation of commercial whaling, this population has shown few signs of recovery.

SnotBot is a tool which can collect a wide array of data. Thus far we have used SnotBot to collect blow samples, photo-ID, photogrammetry, bio-acoustics, lowlight/night-time studies, behavioural data and bio-kinetics data. Undoubtedly there are many applications of this technology we have not thought of. A tool which can simultaneously collect so many forms of data is rare. But one which can do so economically (our favoured drone, the DJI Mavic PRO, costs under $1,000) is revolutionary. The cheaper the tool, the more groups around the world can use it in their own research/conservation programs to collect all this different data. And with these streams of data being collected all around the world, scientists and conservationists can begin to take great steps forward in our ability to understand and ultimately protect, these animals.

— Andy Rogan

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017, in collaboration with Parley: We’re underway!

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Whoo hooo – wish you were here!!

Our field site is Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico. Our principle study species is the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet (yes, bigger than dinosaurs) – blue whales. A fully grown blue whale can weight over 150 tons and can grow up to 100 ft in length.

Yesterday, (Sunday, March 13) we got out on the water, after a pretty stressful two days getting down to Loreto with a total of 27 bags (including carry-ons). We joined our host for the week —  Michael Fishbach of the Great Whale Conservancy — yesterday morning.  After a couple of hours of unpacking, we were out on the water by 1:30. Even though we like to be on the water by 8:00 am at the latest, our feeling was that we might as well get a few hours on the water to test our protocols, fly the drones and get the team back in synch.

The team this expedition remains principally the same: Iain Kerr, expedition leader; Andrew Rogan, scientist;  Christian Miller, cinematography; and John Graham, engineer (MacGyver). New to the team this year is Kendall Mashburn from the University of Fairbanks, Alaska.  Kendall is working with Andy and me to review our data collection protocols and onboard sample processing based on Kendall’s expertise with hormones.

Kendall will take our samples back to Dr. Shannon Atkinson’s lab in Alaska. She will be looking at levels of glucocorticoids (stress hormones), testosterone, progesterone and estrogen (reproductive hormones), and triiodothyronine and thyroxin (metabolic hormones). As if that were not enough, we have a Nutopia film crew with us, filming SnotBot as part of an upcoming documentary special called One Strange Rock.

I am happy and a bit stunned to report that within the first 15 minutes of leaving the dock we had collected our first sample from a blue whale (!) and the day just got better.

As you can see from the photos (thank you Christian and Michael), we had stunning interactions with blue whales right up until it got too dark for us to keep working.

I have to head out onto the water now – who knows what adventures today will bring!
From Mexico wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Iain

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Getting There

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After months of planning, countless phone calls made, funds raised, and supplies procured, the Ocean Alliance crew find themselves in a very familiar place. As I am writing this, we are squeezed into a relatively small metal tube, flying 34,000 feet above the earth at a rate of 418 mph, looking to follow up on last year’s highly successful kick-off of the SnotBot program. Our journey takes us back to the Sea of Cortez, but this time to the town of Loreto for what is sure to be an amazing encounter with the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale. The SnotBot team of Iain Kerr, Andy Rogan, Christian Miller, and me (John Graham) is excited to have along with us on this expedition Kendall Mashburn, a wildlife endocrinologist from the University of Alaska. Kendall brings with her years of experience studying and processing wildlife data.

As the tech guy on these expeditions, I am very excited to not only be in close proximity to these huge beautiful creatures, but also to put our new drones and their collection devices through their paces in our relentless search to improve upon the system in which we obtain the data-rich exhaled breath condensate of nature’s ocean dwelling leviathans. I’m not going to give it away, but we do have some intriguing tricks up our sleeves that will hopefully aid us in our research.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Day 1: Jet lagged after our travels from our home base in Gloucester, Massachusetts, we have finally arrived at our destination, the small town of Loreto. We were briefed by our host, guide, and local expert on blue whales, president of the Great Whale Conservancy Michael Fishbach, who used words that make oceanographic researchers salivate, like abundant, feeding, unorthodox behavior, and poop. He than backed up his lofty words with jaw-dropping video footage. Needless to say, we were all very eager to get out on the water and do what we do best: collect whale snot.

After sorting out our gear, we headed down to the docks where we were met by the Nutopia crew filming us for the documentary One Strange Rock, who will be with us this week to document our unique data-collecting process. So, not to leave you in suspense, but stay tuned for the next blog describing how our first day went. I promise, it will be worth the wait!

— John

Aloha, Hawaii

By | aug14 | No Comments

I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Hawaii, where I got to connect with some old friends, make new friends, and even say hi to a few humpbacks (even though it was blowing 30 knots the day we went out).

It’s a long trip, and jet lag had me staggering my first day in Honolulu, but wouldn’t you say yes to getting out of New England in February to give two talks in Hawaii?  My first talk was at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island.  I have to say that while Ocean Alliance’s headquarters at the old Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory buildings on Gloucester Harbor are pretty amazing, these folks have us beat.  What a spectacular facility, and the staff offered tremendous hospitality. Coconut Island is cut off from the mainland so you have to take a small boat over to the institute.

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

I was surprised when my new friend and guide Dr. Aude Pacini invited me to get into another boat to go over to their marine mammal stranding facility at the edge of the Marine Core Base on Mokapu peninsula.  I could not have been happier, there were V22 Osprey assault planes landing on my right and an extensive marine mammal stranding facility on my left. Dr. Kristi West was my type of whale biologist; she was clearly very passionate about her work, even though dealing with dead or stranded animal is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea (or as nice a smell).

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

Kirsti gave me a tour of their facility, showing me where they did their necropsies, letting me look over the shoulder of a scientist who was reviewing the stomach contents of a recent stranding, and even letting me to walk into their large freezer that held a biological treasure trove of frozen marine mammal parts.  After a tour of this facility it was back to Coconut Island, where I gave a talk on the Voyages of the Odyssey and the toxicological consequences of our consumer lifestyles.

The next day I was invited to the main campus in Honolulu, where I gave an talk on how we developed SnotBot and showed some videos of snot collection.

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

I must say that I found the generosity and collaborative spirit of everyone I met to be right down our street (as I often say, we are Ocean Alliance, not Ocean Alone). I talked with people about collaborating on some archival toxicological work, drone projects, and entanglement and stranding projects. I promise you the fact that I was in Hawaii in February as against New England had nothing to do with my enthusiasm.

I see enormous potential for groups like Ocean Alliance and the University of Hawaii to work together; the distance between us only increase the value of our perspective.  At the end of the day, as much as I was enchanted with the islands and the climate, it was the people who made the trip worthwhile, so my undying thanks go to Pam, Dr. Ruth Gates, and Dr. Aude Pacini. Aloha and Mahalo nui.

OA science manager reflects on adventures with SnotBot

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Ocean Alliance Science Manager and SnotBot scientist Andy Rogan wrote this article for the January edition of Biosphere, a digital magazine specializing in the most exciting research from the zoological sciences and the latest wildlife news

YOU HAD ME AT SNOTBOT,” an homage to Jerry Maguire I’ve heard on more than one occasion during my role within this programme, and on one occasion, I might add, from an editor at Biosphere.

My experience with the programme kicked off in fairly spectacular fashion on a surprisingly cold morning in Baja California’s San Ignacio Lagoon. Months of build up had led us to this boat, filled with our team and a mix of veteran Mexican and American cetacean scientists, all as curious as I to see how SnotBot would work. SnotBot is an Ocean Alliance programme in which we are using relatively inexpensive consumer drones to collect respiratory samples — called blow, snot or exhaled breath condensate (EBC) — from whales.

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

(Photo by Christian Miller)

The Ocean Alliance, a Massachusetts-based whale research and education non-profit, launched a successful crowdfunding campaign in the summer of 2015 and since then SnotBot has gone from strength to strength, albeit with a few bumps in the road, or should I say airpockets in the airspace? Out in front of our small panga – a local wooden fishing boat, came the call of “ballenas!” (Spanish for whales) and an outstretched arm pointing toward a puff of white air on the horizon. Here we go! Anticipation could be felt in the air as everyone prepared. The drone went up, hovered and… began to shake… began to rattle. Seconds later we were speeding towards the drone which was plummeting – and never has my use of this word been so appropriate – toward the water where it would begin disappearing into the heavily protected waters of San Ignacio Lagoon. Later that month neither my boss nor the drone pilot were particularly happy when I drew up the official flight statistics of the expedition and listed 13 seconds as the shortest flight duration.

Six months later, almost to the day, SnotBot posed a different kind of challenge. I found myself in a large exhibition hall in the U.S. State Department HQ, obsessively fidgeting with my tie. A crowd of about 50 people were bustling toward me armed with a dazzling array of cameras, microphones and voice recorders. Printed on a large pillar behind me were the words “SnotBot: Drones for Whale Research,” and a short description of the programme. A few seconds later I was discussing the programme with Secretary of State John Kerry, whose total and utter attention is held by a giant TV screen looping whale footage from our most recent Alaska expedition, and not by my incessant promotion of the programme. So what is it about SnotBot that makes it unique? Is there a reason, other than its name, that it has received so much attention? If not, does that make it a gimmick, a distasteful degradation of the scientific process?

Roger Payne and Andy Rogan introduce John and Teresa Kerry to SnotBot

The rise of drones in many areas of society over the past five years has been well documented. When our programme was initiated back in 2012, many saw it as a manifestation of our CEO’s passion for flying remote-controlled vehicles, not the foresight of a hobbyist in recognising the extraordinary potential of an emerging technology.

But, as time goes on, it is becoming increasingly apparent just how powerful these tools are, and, especially to us, just how revolutionary they will be in marine mammal science. The fire they will ignite under conventional research methodologies could be huge. Not least because whales are, in many respects, difficult animals to study. They spend much of their time beneath the surface of the water, conducting much of their activity out of view from human research eyes. They often live far from land and in remote areas, they can travel vast distances, quickly moving through their environment in unpredictable directions. Unlike many terrestrial animals, they do not leave easily detectable tracks or signs of their presence. When we do catch glimpses of them in order to aid our studies, we are often restricted in our perspective, stuck on a vessel a few metres above the surface of the water. In response to these challenges marine mammal scientists have developed a variety of innovative techniques ranging from the simple to the complex, such as photo-ID, skin/blubber biopsy analysis, bioacoustics and so on. But owing to the logistical complexities of studying these animals these methods are often inefficient and expensive.

The data we are able to collect with a $2,000 consumer drone is simply extraordinary. The most important part of this is that, at this cost, this is a tool that many researchers around the world will be able to afford. No longer will collecting large, varied datasets be the exclusive realm of the wealthiest academic institutions and research groups. Our oceans are vast, the ecosystems they support invariably complex. If we are to understand them, we need big data sets. This is what these tools can provide, their use of course extending far beyond marine mammal science.

Collecting robust biological samples from large whales in a non-invasive and non-disruptive manner has been a major hurdle that has previously limited our knowledge of these magnificent and ecologically important species. SnotBot is changing this, delivering a diverse range of biological data from large whales without the animals even knowing we are there. Whilst most tools have a single purpose/function, in addition to respiratory samples SnotBot collects a broad spectrum of data forms, including photogrammetry, photo-ID, behavior, bio-acoustics, low-light/nighttime studies and so on that can be used in other valuable analyses. 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.

At a time when whales face a rapidly growing list of man-made threats, we need consistent biological and supporting meta-data to determine how these threats are impacting these animals and what we can do to minimise or remove them. Considering that whales also play a role as a bio-indicator species – the proverbial ocean “canaries in the coal mine,” the data we collect would also have important consequences for our wider oceans and subsequently for humanity.

Our primary objective has been to encourage and facilitate the widespread adoption of these tools. Our experience with this programme has led us to the conclusion that drones will be game-changers, ushering in a new research paradigm for marine mammal science. So far we have flown 258 EBC specific flights over four species: Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) in Patagonia, Argentina; gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico; blue (Balaenoptera musculus) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Bahia La Paz, Mexico; and humpback whales in Frederick Sound, Alaska.

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

It has certainly been an interesting ride, and I am happy to say that most stories, unlike that fateful first flight in San Ignacio Lagoon, are positive; though certainly we’ve learnt to expect the unexpected, and our predictions have proven somewhat wide of the mark! We chose Patagonia as the location of our first expedition as the whales are using the bay as a calving/mating ground so are fasting, placing a priority on conserving energy. To us, this relative inactivity suggested an animal that was easy to sample. We were wrong. We expected that inactivity would result in less frequent and less forceful exhalations, but we underestimated the degree to which this would be true. Furthermore, after hours of preparation and planning, when we finally had the drone in the air, we had steered it over a rising whale ready to capture the valuable data it would blow, when the whale rolled nonchalantly to one side, blowing a few inches to the right of the drone, before sinking back down. Unbeknownst to us, this rolling from side to side would be quite frequent in these calving and mating whales – it wasn’t going to be an easy group.

When we began to fly the SnotBot, we had been collecting the blow by attaching a long pole to the bottom of the drone on which we would attach four petri dishes. We began noticing a considerable amount of blow on the top of the drones, and decided to place petri dishes on top to take advantage of this. The first time we tried this we collected our largest sample yet. Our unsubstantiated theory is that the propellers actually suck the material in the blow back on to the top of the drone. One might think the drone had always been destined to be a blow collector…

With the dawn of such a new technology, there is a total lack of data, so permitting authorities have no evidence on which to base their rules about flying the drones. In one location, our drone was counted as an airplane and thus we had to treat it as such when flying over whales. This meant that our vessel could approach a whale up to 300 feet and we would not have to record it as a ‘take’. But if we were 1000 feet from the whale, as soon as the drone took off that would be a take. Thus we could be in our 30-foot research vessel 300 feet from a whale and not record it as a take, but if the drone, weighing 3 kilograms, was 999 feet from a whale that would be a take. This is of course expected, and we are working with permitting authorities providing them our data to help them create their rules.

SnotBot has been quite a ride so far. We’ve introduced it to John Kerry, been the feature of well over 300 press articles worldwide, a Youtube video with over 130,000 views, two facebook videos with over 2,000,000 views combined, we’ve been labelled one of the Top 8 breakthrough innovations saving our oceans by the manager of the XPRIZE Oceans Initiative, we’ve won the Innovative Drone Exploration and Application competition at Drone World Expo and even been the feature of a pre-K through Grade 6 children’s book. This attention is allowing us to reach and educate enormous numbers of people, educating them on the science of whales, the number of very real threats they face and how they can help.

The name might be unappealing to some, and just funny to others, but this is no gimmick. SnotBot, and the tool that it is built upon, is powerful, cost-effective and revolutionary. With the help of these new technologies we will take huge strides forward in understanding whales, how they are being impacted by natural and anthropogenic stressors, their physiology and behaviour and how best to protect them in a changing ocean.

Talking about SnotBot and more to Rockport Rotary Club

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Today, I had the pleasure of speaking to members of the Rockport Rotary Club about the many projects we’re involved with here at Ocean Alliance. Rotary is an organization of business and professional leaders united worldwide who provide humanitarian service, and help build goodwill and peace in the world.

 

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr with Rockport Rotary Club's president, Jack Reed.

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr with Rockport Rotary Club’s president, Jack Reed.

The main objective of Rotary is service — in the community, in the workplace, and throughout the world — so I was happy to be able to bring Rockport Rotary up to date on the projects we’ve undertaken that are a service to the Cape Ann community and to planet Ocean! I talked about our work rehabbing the Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory, which sat for years empty, crumbling, and polluted on the edge of Gloucester Harbor. It’s now Ocean Alliance’s headquarters, and is becoming a vibrant part of the community, hosting our Robotics Club, launching research expeditions around the globe, collaborating on community art shows, and becoming a positive sign of growth on the waterfront.
I  talked about our innovative SnotBot drones, and what a game-changing technology they have been for whale research. I also talked about how SnotBot has also turned out to be a great educational tool. The kids who come to our Robotics Club, which meets once a week at our Paint Factory headquarters, have been learning all about how to build and fly drones, and they have even helped solve a data problem we were having with SnotBot!
Our thanks go out to Judy Manchester for arranging the talk and to all of the Rockport Rotarians for listening and for the great work that they do.

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

2016: the year in review

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A message from CEO Dr. Iain Kerr

2016 has been a most productive year for Ocean Alliance. If you go to our website (www.whale.org) you will find blogs and videos about our work with: SnotBot, STEAM initiatives, right whales, blue whales, ocean plastics and climate change. You will also find expressions of interest in our work from Secretary of State John Kerry as well as from students of the Parley Ocean School in Jamaica.

You know what a solid bang for the buck we provide: when I told commercial drone operators at the Drone World Expo the cost of a SnotBot expedition they said they didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, given how much we do for so little.

Most charities raise up to 40% of their funding in November and December; we hope that you will confirm your continued belief in the work we do by making a donation or buying some SnotBot swag in our store or adopting a whale.

From continued development of benign research tools such as SnotBot; data collection for the 48th consecutive season of our Southern right whale program (the longest continuous study of a great whale behavior on the planet) and our STEM and STEAM education initiatives. Our vision is an ocean that is healthy for whales and humans.

Please help us turn that dream into a reality.

Highlights from 2016

• January: Extended SnotBot interview with Sir Patrick Stewart posted on our website.

• February: CEO Iain Kerr was asked to join the Advisory Board of Drone World Expo, where “thought leaders, industry experts and end-users gather in the heart of Silicon Valley to present real-world solutions to business and environmental challenges.”

• March 25-April 6: Our second SnotBot Expedition was launched to Baja California. Our team visited two different locations, collecting respiratory or “blow” samples from gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon and blue and humpback whales in Bahia La Paz, where we were visited by a film crew from drone manufacturer DJI. The expedition was an enormous success.

Ocean Alliance Mexico expedition. Photo: Christian Miller

Ocean Alliance Mexico expedition. Photo: Christian Miller

• April: Ocean Alliance was a consultant for Sonic Sea, a documentary on sound pollution in our oceans. We also provided whale recordings for Sonic Seas.

• May 30: The 4-minute video produced by DJI during our SnotBot Baja California expedition went live. This incredibly well made video, created by award winning cameraman Tom Fitz and producer Adrienne Hall, has already been viewed more than 130,000 times on YouTube.

• June 4: At the International Whaling Commission meeting in Slovenia. Dr. Mariano Sironi, one of our partners at the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB) in Argentina presented a report about our Southern right whale program.

• June 8: SnotBot is labelled one of the top 8 breakthroughs saving our oceans by Matthew Mulrennan, the manager of the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative.

• June 15: The Big G Foundation supported the development of EarBot. This gave us a prototype to take to Alaska during our third SnotBot Expedition for trials.

• June 18: Ocean Alliance collaborated with the North Shore Arts Association for an exhibit and fundraiser that lasted over a month. This show included a series of talks including one by Iain Kerr and a performance of “Sea Change” by Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow. Local artists painted on old slates from one of the Paint Factory buildings; these unique and historical pieces of art were then put up for auction. Over $9,000 was raised and shared between Ocean Alliance and NSAA.

Painting on slate tile by Anne Demeter

Painting on slate tile by Anne Demeter

• July 22: We were given a 30-foot Bertram vessel called Double Header. This is the perfect boat for our regional SnotBot and toxicology programs. We have named the vessel Cachalot, after the French/Spanish name for sperm whale.

• July 26: We hosted a successful Harbor Cruise fundraiser with the generous help of our partners at Seven Seas Whale Watch and their vessel the Privateer IV. We raised over $4,000 which, for a first event, is a success. We intend to make this an annual event. http://www.whale.org/gloucester-harbor-cruise/

• August 10: Ocean Alliance launched —this one to Frederick Sound, Alaska. third SnotBot expedition —this one to Frederick Sound, Alaska. The trip achieved solid advances in SnotBot methodology and we were able to collect significantly more samples than our original goal. We also made the first tests of ‘EarBot’ (for listening to whales underwater) and ‘FLIRBot’ (a drone equipped with an InfraRed camera for studying/detecting whales at night/in lowlight conditions) and collected some exceptional footage of whales.

• Stories on SnotBot exceeded 400 press articles worldwide! This includes two facebook videos that combined have gotten over 2 MILLION views!
https://www.facebook.com/PlayGroundMag/videos/1228292177210656/
https://www.facebook.com/thedodosite/videos/911934465607896/

• August: SnotBot is to be a kids book! We are working with the publishers Houghton Mifflin to create a “high interest reading” book for Pre-K through Grade 6, that will be released in 2017! The book is being produced as part of a Pinnell Classroom Literacy project, a high-interest reading and literacy program.

• September 3 – 5: we held an open house and art exhibition on our site at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory in association with the Trident Gallery, called The Deep Sea Has Its Stars. Over 1,000 people visited the site, which was wonderful exposure for us in the city of Gloucester, and we raised over $4,000. The success of this event means that we will also make it an annual event. Board members Linde McNamara and her husband, Mac, volunteered at the event.

• September 7: Roger Payne joined Paul Winter in Nantucket for a “Whales Alive” concert.

• September 11: John Atkinson flew down to Argentina to join Vicky Rowntree and the ICB team for the 47 consecutive field season and aerial survey studying the Southern right whales at Peninsula Valdez.

• September 12: Tom Costello from NBC Nightly News visited Ocean Alliance to shoot a story on SnotBot. http://www.whale.org/nbc-nightly-news-visits-ocean-alliance/

• September 16 – 17: Roger Payne and Andy Rogan attended the Our Oceans Conference in Washington D.C., hosted by the State Department. SnotBot was personally invited to be at the event. Roger and Andy introduced SnotBot to Secretary of State John Kerry, who labelled footage of whales filmed from SnotBot ‘mesmerizing’ and ‘so amazing.’ The conference also included keynote speeches by President Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio. Other exhibition hall presenters included Oceana, SkyTruth/Google, Pew, the US Navy, Seavision, Liquid Robotics, and NASA (all with multimillion-dollar budgest as against Ocean Alliance’s less than $1 million budget).

Roger Payne and Andy Rogan introduce John and Teresa Kerry to SnotBot

Roger Payne and Andy Rogan introduce John and Teresa Kerry to SnotBot

• September 20: SnotBot is announced as one of three winners of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Innovative Drone Exploration and Application (IDEA) Competition. Award to be presented at Drone World Expo.

• September: Roger Payne’s work was featured in the 2016 Indianapolis Prize Guide to Animal Conservation Giving.
Pages 32 & 33.

• October 14 – 16: Iain Kerr worked with the Parley Ocean School in Jamaica to educate and introduce disadvantaged children to our oceans and the problem of ocean plastics.

• November 7 – 14: Iain Kerr went to the Maldives with Adidas and Parley for the Oceans in a program associated with the new Adidas shoe made from recycled ocean plastic.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel -- some had never snorkeled before.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel — some had never snorkeled before.

• October 14: Our work with the local high school robotics team, the Ipswich Tigers, is reported on by CBS Boston affiliate WBZ-TV. The students made an altimeter for SnotBot that informs the pilot how high the drone is above the whale through an earpiece, a vital piece of equipment. This is the kind of program we love: high school kids making a genuine difference to our primary research program. This was also reported in our local newspaper.

• November 1: Of all the videos made on SnotBot, this is one of the most exciting! The US Department of State made a video on the program that they then shared with their embassies all around the world!

• November 15 – 16: Iain Kerr gave a SnotBot talk at the Drone World Expo in San Jose, and gave a second SnotBot talk as a winner of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Innovative Drone Exploration and Application (IDEA) Competition.

SnotBot makes a splash at Drone World Expo

“It has been an incredibly productive year! We thank you for giving us the opportunity to do what we do best. As we look to 2017 I can tell you that we have some very exciting projects and collaborations on the horizon! We’re excited to take SnotBot to the next level, and formally introduce EarBot, FLIRBot, and other bot’ that are changing the way we do whale research. We’re also looking forward to continuing renovations of our home at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory and our 48th consecutive Southern right whale season. But most of all we are looking forward to sharing some adventures with all of you and continuing to take steps towards protecting whales and the ocean environment in which they swim.
Roger Payne – Founder and President.

Iain talks about SnotBot at Drone World Expo

SnotBot makes a splash at Drone World Expo

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I was on the road for almost two weeks, and flew over 21,000 miles from Boston to the Indian Ocean, and then from the Indian Ocean over the pole to LA and then back to Boston.

I spent the last two days of the trip at the Drone World Expo (DWE), “The Defining Event for the Commercial Applications of UAS Technology.” I am on the advisory board for DWE, so it has been a real education to see this conference come together. Most of the equipment, people, and processes were on the cutting edge, so it was a great opportunity to meet with leaders in the field of drone and sensor tech. Many of the visions for the future were applicable to the work that Ocean Alliance hopes to do over the next three to five years, and while much of the tech was above Ocean Alliances current budgets, I expect that the prices will drop considerably over the next couple of years.

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SnotBot was one of the three winners of the Innovative Drone Exploration and Application (IDEA) Competition, a new competition created by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and DWE.  Winners of this competition had all of their expenses related to DWE covered and were asked to talk about their project at the Expo. As a DWE advisory board member, I was also invited to give a second talk on our work, so SnotBot was very well represented at DWE.

SnotBot tech John Graham and I were also surprised by how many people seemed to be aware and supportive of the SnotBot program, from all the feedback we received we feel comfortable in saying that we are a leader in the field of “drones for good.”

 

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An impressive array of technology was on display at Drone World Expo.

An impressive array of technology was on display at Drone World Expo.

I was a little disappointed that over 90 percent of the technology, applications, and ideas were based solely on terrestrial projects. I spent much of the conference going around saying my favorite line:  “We live on planet ocean, not planet earth,” and since 71 percent of the planet is water, you need to be looking to drones that work above, below, and on the water. I know a few companies that are going home and expanding their visions for their tech to include oceans.

Onward! Upward!

CEO Iain Kerrflies the Mavic Pro while at the Parley conference in the Maldive. (Photo: Christian Miller)

CEO Iain Kerr checks in from the Maldives

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CEO Iain Kerrflies the Mavic Pro while at the Parley conference in the Maldive. (Photo: Christian Miller)

CEO Iain Kerr flies the Mavic Pro while at the Parley conference in the Maldive. (Photo: Christian Miller)

I am very lucky to be in the Maldives Islands as part of Parley Ocean School.  I am here with five other Ocean Ambassadors, Emily Penn, Kahi Pacarro, Christian Miller (SnotBot team member), Mike Long, and Maldivian Shaahina Ali with the Park Hyatt Hadahaa.  Sitting down and just having a meal with these folks is amazing, spending almost a week with them is an educational experience and then some.  What I found enlightening is that even though the team represents people from around the globe — Emily in Britain, Kahi from Hawaii, Christian from Australia, Mike and me from mainland USA — our stories, passions and goals are amazingly similar.

One of the reasons I am enjoying this program so much is because of its scope; it’s not often that you join a program that has a local, national, and international perspective. Every evening there are lectures on the boat on ocean plastics, ocean pollution etc, every morning we go out and have an ocean experience, and then every afternoon we have workshops, beach clean ups, or meet with local school kids, educators, and policy makers. We are here with over 20 staff from the Adidas Corporation. Adidas this month (in collaboration with Parley) will be putting on the market 1 million shoes made from ocean plastic. I plan on buying mine as soon as I get back.

Considering that the Adidas team represent people from across the corporation — design, finance, marketing, logistics, etc. — the workshops and discussions we been having as it relates to commerce, plastic and our oceans have been very educational and I think empowering to all.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel -- some had never snorkeled before.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel — some had never snorkeled before.

Going into the local schools and talking to kids about oceans and plastic pollution has been fantastic; two days ago more than 60 kids experienced three different ocean lectures at their school, and then we took them out onto the reefs to snorkel – many had never snorkeled before, but you can be sure that they will do so again.  As I write this blog another 60 plus kids are out on the reef with the Adidas team and Parley. Yesterday we had two soccer games against a local woman’s team and a men’s team, I think that the local teams had practiced more than ours so we won’t discuss the score.

A theme of the trip is the Parley initiative AIR. Avoid-Intercept-Redesign, I encourage you to read more about it here.

I did of course bring a drone with me to the Maldives; right before I left I received one of the newest drones from DJI — the Mavic Pro — and I am smitten.  This is the smallest drone DJI has ever made, but it has (most of) the capacity of a Phantom 4.  I would not have brought a larger drone like a P4 to the Maldives, just too much gear to lug half way around the world. I have already taken the Mavic Pro with me on a couple of excursions where I would not have taken a larger drone (attached photo of kids Snorkeling).  As far as I am concerned the foldable design and consequently resulting in ease of use/portability along with a 4K camera and 24 min plus flight time makes the Mavic Pro the current leader in the market for enthusiasts like me (we bought this drone it was not donated).  We will be trying out the Mavic Pro as a SnotBot platform in early 2017. I think that the very light footprint of the drone might mean more snot is collected in our petri dishes on top of the drone by the rotor vortex’s (more on that later).

With drones on my mind, next Monday I am flying from the Maldives to LA then Silicon Valley, CA, to give two talks at Drone World Expo.  I will send at least one more blog from the Maldives before I leave and will be sending a blog from DWE.

All the best from the Indian Ocean.

Iain Kerr

NBC Nightly News visits Ocean Alliance

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On Monday Sept 12th, Tom Costello from NBC Nightly News visited Ocean Alliance to shoot a story on SnotBot.

Mr. Costello was accompanied by his producer Jay Blackman, a videographer, and soundman. The weather was absolutely beautiful and the NBC team were on site from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm.

NBC 3 TN

Our CEO and chief SnotBot pilot Iain Kerr was interviewed and filmed flying SnotBot. Understanding the unique perspective of a drone, he offered to shoot some video of Mr. Costello for the news story with SnotBot. NBC are now heading to interview Dr. Scott Baker at Oregon State University, who is analyzing SnotBot samples from our most recent expedition to Alaska.

NBC 6 TN
“We are very excited to have NBC Nightly News show an interest in this work,” said Dr. Kerr. “Mr. Costello was a real pleasure to work with, and he asked some great questions with regards to SnotBot and whales both on and off camera.”

SnotBot Alaska was the last Kickstarter-funded SnotBot expedition, so the grind of raising funds to keep the SnotBot (and now EarBot) program moving forward now goes back into high gear. We hope that the exposure offered by Mr. Costello and the NBC team will help with this process.

Details of when the show will air will be posted on Ocean Alliance’s Facebook page – likely it will be the week of September 19th. 

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

UAS Vision Interview with Iain Kerr

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This interview with Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr originally appeared on the UAS Vision website, an independent global forum for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems community.

We wanted to find out more about the team behind Drone World Expo – what makes them tick, what motivates them and what are the secrets behind the success of the event. We will be interviewing several of the Advisory Board members over the coming months. We start with Dr. Iain Kerr, the CEO of the Ocean Alliance, an organization recognised as an international leader in whale research and ocean conservation since its founding by renowned scientist Dr. Roger Payne in 1970. Iain has pioneered research using UAVs  to collect data from whales and the ocean environment.

  1. What was the trigger for your move to the USA? Was Ocean Alliance your first employer?

I first came over to the USA looking for adventure, I had just finished four years at university I wanted to go and explore the world, my sister had friends in Miami and the Bahamas so that seemed like the best place to go. A year or so later I started a small company in Miami called CDI hovercraft.  These were small light weight hovercraft that were the ultimate all terrain vehicles, we sold some to rice growers in the Mississippi, gold miners in Brazil and adventurers or early adopters looking for a new type of transportation.  I still see these hovercraft as a solution looking for a problem.  I have always liked to tinker with machines.  After CDI Hovercraft I worked as a yacht delivery captain for a few years but my first formal job was with Ocean Alliance when I captained their research vessel Siben to the Galapagos in the 1980’s.

  1. What was your first encounter with a drone ?

I studied engineering at the University of London (part of a teacher training course) I don’t know why but I have always had a great fascination with Helicopters, so I wanted to build a gyrocopter for a final design/build project at University. Luckily my dad persuaded me to build a Hovercraft (see photo below – less height to fall if something goes wrong) hence the Hovercraft company in Miami.

Hovercraft Shoreditch
I did not do much airborne tech work for the next decade that I spent at sea but when I came ashore I instantly started back up with gas powered RC helicopters. I did not like the constant engine issues, exhaust and fuel problems and my landlord did not like the dead spots all over the lawn.  About another decade later when battery powered helicopters and planes came onto the scene I leapt back into the field with both feet.

  1. What do you see as being the advantage(s) of using drones for conservation?

I could spend all day answering this question – I believe that drones for conservation and research are akin to the invention of the microscope for cellular biology.  They are opening up a whole new world for us to explore.  They are affordable, quite, adaptable, reliable and scalable.  I was recently hovering above a blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet.

Blue body short
Through FPV [First-Person View] I was just sitting 20 feet above this remarkable animal watching, its movement, its musculature, its respiration rate, its patterning and then a few minutes later I had, DNA, Microbiomes and who knows what else from its snot and it never even knew that I was there.  If we truly want to understand what effects humanity is having on wildlife we need to study them in a non invasive manner (see the observer effect) – todays drones are the ultimate realization of non invasive research. I also believe we are only just scratching the surface of the potential for these machines.

  1. Which airframes did you select for your most recent expeditions to the Sea of Cortez and Alaska and why ?

When we first started the SnotBot program we built prototypes with our friends at Olin College of Engineering, we soon realized that companies like DJI were spending millions on research and development and it would be easier for us to modify their product than create a whole new product. When you spend a lot of money and time getting a team on location, you want a drone that you can rely on and DJI had that in spades. We also really liked the interface that the DJI products have with the iPad or iPhone and the flight log App. Using a drone to collect whale blows is a bit counterintuitive, the whales are blowing up but the drones are blowing down.

Inspire 1 SnotBot[2]
In Mexico we wanted to explore two avenues of Snot collection, the first was to use a number of different Snot collection devices on a pole (trying to get out of the downwash) and the second was to use the drone rotor circulation or vortex’s to collect snot for us, taking advantage of the prop wash as against fighting it.  The DJI Phantom 4 was perfect for attaching poles and different payloads.  The thin body of the DJI Inspire 1 (as against the typical round body) meant that we could put Petri Dishes on the top of the Inspire and collect snot as it was sucked in by the blades and pushed down along the thin body (see photo).  We chose wisely, this method was very successful.

dripping
5. There is now a wide variety of exhibitions and conferences about UAS in the USA.  Why did you choose to support Drone World Expo (http://droneworldexpo.com)?

I started by looking at their advisory board, I really liked the fact that they had such a diverse collection of people, from industry, legislation, investment, science and innovation.  The skills experience and expertise that this group bring to the table is quite remarkable.  I also like the fact that this conference represents a true cross section of the industry, I see other conferences that are more focused on one aspect or another but in their own words:  “The DWE conference program will provide a road map for the application and deployment of drone solutions and key insights for participants into how to measure and maximize on the value drones can add to commercial businesses”.

“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?

IMG_3816

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…

DSC01184

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

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

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

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The first leg of the SnotBot Sea of Cortez expedition was to San Ignacio lagoon, where the accessibility of grey whales gave us an opportunity to test a number of different snot sample collection techniques.  After working with fairly social Southern right whales and very social grey whales, the work was about to get a lot harder.  While we had developed a very successful sample collection platform with the DJI Inspire 1 during the first Leg, the question was could we collect snot from other species of less social whales such as humpback, blue & fin whales?

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

 

So after 5 productive days in San Ignacio Lagoon, we packed up our 16 bags and made the 12-hour drive to La Paz for Leg 2.  I thought that this drive was going to be very boring with hours of endless desert. While we did have plenty of desert, the countryside was spectacular, driving along coastal roads in and out of low mountainous ranges.  The scenery kept changing from desert to dry river beds where greenery was abundant and human agriculture evident. I have seen so much of Mexico from the sea so it was a real pleasure to have this terrestrial counterpoint.

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz

 

We arrived in La Paz late on Friday night with a message from Dr. Jorge Urban that it would be too windy to go out on Saturday.  As disappointed as we were to hear this, it did give us a day to organize our equipment, buy the items that we could not get in San Ignacio, and meet the film team, Adrienne & Tom, who had come to document our work for an out-of-house project (more about that later).  It was also a luxury to have a real shower, plug our battery chargers into every socket in the room and connect to the Internet!!

Hotel room

Hotel room

 

Sunday morning we were up at 6:30 and on the boat by 8:00.  Dr Urban (who I have known for over 20 years) from the University of La Paz was at the helm of his 22 ft panga, so we knew that if there were whales out there that we were with the best man in town to find them.  Alas,  Jorge had some bad news to share. The El Nino was wreaking havoc with the Sea of Cortez ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial, and his team were not seeing the typical patterns of whales or abundance – he had just postponed a satellite tagging project because of this.  With those thoughts in mind, we headed out in the Bahia La Paz.  Bounded by the Baja peninsular to the west and the islands of Espirito Santo and Partida to the east, Bahia La Paz extends almost 30 miles north from the city of La Paz and is on average 20 miles wide. These are (typically) very productive whale grounds, and as we spent our first day searching the bay we were regaled with stories of frequent past encounters with humpback, fin and blue whales and occasional encounters with orcas and sperm whales.

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route

 

We covered over 100 sun-blistering miles the first day, stopping every hour to look and listen. Despite the optimal conditions we did not see a single blow. We returned to our hotel that night tired, sunburnt and a little disheartened.  This is the business though, so the next morning we were in the panga by 7:30 and back out on the water.  Today our guide was Iram, another seasoned biologist from Dr Urban’s team.  Alas the day did not go much better; we did put our DJI drones to work, though, sending the Phantom 4 up to 380 feet every hour using it as an eye in the sky.

As effective as the Phantom 4 was in increasing our spotting range, we still did not see any blows, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the wind had picked up to 15-20 knots so we headed back in.  We were quite close to the city of La Paz when we saw a blow and quickly identified it as a humpback whale.  Typically in conditions this windy we would not try for a blow collection (above 15 knots the wind lays the blow down and the chances of more salt water in the blow increases).  But considering that this was the first whale that we had seen in 3 days, we went for it.  We had moderate success, but every now and then we took a wave over the bow of the boat. This was not good because we had a boat full of electronics, 3 drones and supporting equipment along with close 80K of camera equipment (Christian & Tom both had Red cameras).  So we had to abandon the work and head back into port.  As you can imagine, by this time I was really sweating it (and not because of the heat). We had a very successful first leg, but we needed to validate what we had learned with other species of whales. That night I called our logistics and expedition coordinator, John Atkinson (in Canada), to set up a spotter plane for the next day. We did not have a budget for a plane but we had to find whales. We set it up so that we would spend an hour and a half driving the panga out into the bay and then we would call the plane.  Clearly the whale gods were on our side. Right when we were about to call the plane I heard Adrienne shout BLOW.  Everyone leaped into action, and less than 20 minutes later we had our first humpback whale sample and it was spectacular – our petri dishes and the Inspire 1 were dripping with snot.

Dripping drone

Dripping drone

 

We stayed with this animal for the next few hours, keeping the panga away, but making a number of close approaches with the Inspire 1.  Andy was timing the animal’s dives, which were running at about 9 min. Our procedure was as follows: at 8 min we would prep the Inspire 1; at 8 min 30 sec John Graham would launch the drone and I would hover above the boat ready to go.  Once we saw a blow, my challenge was to get to the whale in time for the second blow.  Once I saw the whale on the surface, I would race the drone towards it and then get into my FPV position (sometimes this would be very disorientating because I would have a drone’s eye view of the world but the boat would be bouncing out of sync with my view).  The whale seemed to like Andy because once he shouted “Should be coming up any second now” and within 5 seconds the whale surfaced. Our drone and launch protocols, our practice as a team, our development of the collection methods all seemed to come together with great results, so we were living the SnotBot dream.  Once when the whale was down Christian sent up his Inspire 1 to film our boat underway, next thing you know the Humpback breached in the frame with our boat in the picture—absolutely blooming amazing.  We went home that night over the moon. Certainly we needed to test SnotBot with other whales, but it looked as if we had a winning formula, all of this work had been caught on camera by two remarkable cameramen, and we still had one day left on the water……. and OMG what a day that was! Ill report on our last day in my next blog.

Dr. Iain Kerr

 

 

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part I

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SnotBot Sea of Cortez was a remarkable expedition with the highest highs and the lowest lows. I was lucky to have a remarkable team with me: technician John Graham, scientist Andy Rogan and photographer/videographer Christian Miller. We had great weather, food, and, most importantly, whales. Here is part one—San Ignacio Lagoon and gray whales.

SnotBot Patagonia proved that we could collect snot from whales using a drone. The primary goal for SnotBot Sea of Cortez was to see if we could increase the snot sample size so that we would have enough to use for all the different analysis that we are interested in.  The secondary goal was to collect snot from multiple whale species to make sure that our previous collection success was not a fluke (pun intended).

In Patagonia our average sample size was around 20 microliters (one small drop of water).  For the Sea of Cortez we set ourselves an optimistic goal of 80 microliters. Imagine building a go-kart that does 50 mph on the first run and taking it home and saying next time we want to go 200 mph.  The Sea of Cortez is a very diverse region species-wise so we were also hoping to encounter gray, humpback and blue whales.  Last but not least, we wanted to do this work with off-the-shelf drones, so that this work can be replicable and scalable, so we were lucky to have the world leader in drone development DJI providing us with the drones. We took with us the new DJI Phantom 4 and the DJI Inspire 1.

DJI P 4-1

DJI Phantom 4

 

Inspire 1 Petri-1

DJI Inspire 1

 

Working with Dr. Jorge Urban’s team from the University of La Paz, our first study site was San Ignacio Lagoon. The gray whales are so friendly here that you do not need a SnotBot to collect blows as they come right up to the boat to be touched and you can’t help but get “snotted.”  Because of this, though, they were the perfect whales for us to conduct multiple flights into blows to test our different snot collection devices. We had a total of five different snot collection devices and procedures that we wanted to test.

One would think that drones would not be good snot collection tools–the whales are blowing the snot up, but the drones, to fly, are blowing air down. Technically we had opposing forces.  For our first set of experiments we used different collection tools at the end of a pole, extending the collection device out of the drone’s prop wash.  We ran multiple flights with five different collection methods:

  1. Nitex weave cloth (very similar to wedding veil)
  2. Stockings on a wire frame (this method has been used on a long pole)
  3. A different weave and texture Nitex cloth
  4. A number of Petri dishes on a T bar (an upgrade of our Patagonia method)
  5. A medical sponge material developed in Malden, MA for hospitals.
Collection methods

Collection methods

The idea is that the different holes, size, and consistency of the materials will collect and hold the snot with different levels of success. The problem with this method is that you have to get the snot out of the capture material after the flight, so we brought a centrifuge to Mexico so that we could spin the snot out from the collection material. The Nitex cloth balls were split up into 4 different pieces so that each section could just be dropped into one of the centrifuge tubes after a flight.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning we flew over 49 flights into gray whale blows.  We were getting into the blows okay and we were getting amazing footage but we were not increasing our sample size by any significant amount.  So on Wednesday afternoon, we attached two 4 inch Petri dishes and one 6 inch petri dish on top of the DJI Inspire 1 with industrial grade velcro.  The idea here was not to get out of the downdraft created by the drone but to use the down draft of the drone to collect snot for us. We believed that the Inspire 1 would be very well-suited to this because while most drones have big round bodies, the Inspire 1 has a long thin body and the propellers are raised above the body. So we put Petri dishes onto the Inspire 1 (see photos of the petri dishes hanging over the body) flew into a gray whale blow and we hit the jackpot.  The petri dishes were literally flooded in snot–Andy Rogan estimated a minimum of 80 micro liters from just one blow.  If we could fly into more than one blow from an animal (and we did) we would collect more than enough snot for the analysis we wanted to do and probably as much snot (or more) than people who have used long poles to collect snot from whales.

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

I should mention that on my very first flight in the Sea of Cortez I crashed and critically damaged a drone. Not a good start. To be knocking the ball out of the ballpark three days later was more like the script for a movie than an actual scientific experiment.  On Thursday morning we went back out to the gray whales with the Inspire 1 and with ten more flights (a total of 59 with grey whales) we consistently repeated our success from the day before.

It should be said that even this experienced team was overtaken by these amazing animals on occasion. I fly the drones FPV (first person view) so I am not looking at the world around me–I have my head pushed against a Hoodman screen cover so that all I can see is a drone’s-eye-view of the world on my IPad. During one flight no one was responding to my question so I took my head away from the screen to see three guys hanging over the side of the boat hugging a whale. Just before we headed back in on the last day I took off my flight and screen harness and managed to touch a whale myself, which Christian Miller caught on camera.

Iain FPV-2

Iain using Hoodman screen

 

christianmiler_oceanalliance_mexico-4

Iain touching a whale. Photo by Christian Miller.

Thursday afternoon we packed up all of our equipment in preparation for the 12-hour drive back down to La Paz where we hoped to find humpback whales and maybe, just maybe, blue or fin whales.  We had been warned that El Nino had had a severe effect on the region and that they had not been seeing the number of whales that they had seen in years past. At this point we did not care – we had over 80 micro liters of snot from a single blow so goal # 1 achieved.  Mission Accomplished!

“How The SnotBot & 3D Printing Are Unlocking The Key To Whale & Ocean Conservation,” from our partner CAPINC

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The following article first appeared on the CAPINC website on March 1, 2016.

Ocean Alliance, like the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has its origins in the bounty and fauna of the sea. Headquartered in the historic Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory, Ocean Alliance, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1971 by renowned biologist Dr. Roger Payne. Ocean Alliance strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whale and ocean health through research and public education. Led by Dr. Payne, CEO Dr. Iain Kerr , Ocean Alliance works with scientific partners to collect a broad spectrum of data on whales and ocean life. Ocean Alliance uses this data to advise educators, policy makers, and the general public on wise stewardship of the oceans to mitigate pollution, prevent the collapse of marine mammal populations, and promote ocean and human health.

Innovation In Conservation

CEO Dr. Iain Kerr has spent years researching whales, and explained that the best way to understand the ocean and its inhabitants is through biological data. In the past, the only approach to attain physical samples from whales was through a biopsy crossbow. This method provided valuable specimens, but proved to be a large undertaking. Dr. Iain Kerr explained,

It seemed to me that there had to be an easier way to do this. Having been a hobbyist and a Maker for most of my life, and in watching the direction in which the hobbyist drone industry was going, I realized that there was a real opportunity to use drones to benefit whales and humanity.”

Dr. Kerr’s overall goal was to develop a research drone that could be used to collect non-invasive biological and photographic data from marine and terrestrial mammals. Using the collected samples of DNA, viruses, bacteria, stress and pregnancy hormones from whale blows, researchers could gather data to better understand whales, the oceans, and humanity’s effect on them in a benign manner. The team at Ocean Alliance believed that the drone design should be easily replicable and scalable, so that it could be adopted as a research tool around the globe. Using their design skills, Ocean Alliance created the first SnotBot.

What Is SnotBot?

SnotBots are custom-built drones created in partnership between Ocean Alliance and students from Olin College of Engineering. Guided by a remote driver, they hover in the air above a surfacing whale and collect the mist (blow) exhaled from its lungs on petri dishes. SnotBot then returns that “snot” sample back to researchers a significant distance away. This non-invasive technique not only collects substantial physical data from each specimen, but also leaves the whales undisturbed, allowing for a more accurate biological picture of the animals.

With over a dozen iterations of SnotBot, the designs evolved with the team’s better understanding of the machine capacity and payloads. The more they learned, the more they were able to push their designs and plans. With a natural hobbyist inclination to make, break and test things, Dr. Kerr believed in 3D printing as a tool to help further their ideas.

I like to think of Ocean Alliance as an ocean innovator. I sometimes joke with my friends and say we’re not on the cutting edge; we’re on the bleeding edge. It’s tough to be an innovator. And often it’s tough to express an idea, or realize an idea, and test an idea. It can be very expensive. And this is where I think 3D printing is changing the world.”

MakerBot Replicator Mini

MakerBot Replicator Mini

Using 3D Printing To Advance The Design Process

January of 2015, CAPINC donated a MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D printer to Ocean Alliance to help further their SnotBot and robotics designs. The addition of the 3D printer has allowed Ocean Alliance to brainstorm multiple iterations of designs, enabling them to test their ideas in the field.

This is where a company like CAPINC comes in because you can’t go down to Home Depot and say I need something to attach a FLIR camera to a drone that is light weight, adaptable, and adjustable. So the capacity for us to even build prototypes of what we think we need, or actually build the real thing, is very exciting.”

The MakerBot Replicator Mini is an entry-level 3D printer, ideal for new users interested in 3D printing, with minimal investment required. Dr. Kerr and his team have enjoyed having an in-house 3D printer.

The unit that we have, that CAPINC has been supporting us with, has been a MakerBot, which, I must say, has been a lot of fun. And I think as an entry-level machine it’s worked very well for us. I will admit we’ve done our prototyping with the MakerBot and then we’ve gone to a next-level machine to do the final products.”

One of the projects 3D printing was heavily used in was designing the SnotShot. The SnotShot was created by Olin students to simulate various whale blowholes & blow patterns, allowing Ocean Alliance to test the different types of blows they might encounter with the SnotBot. This gave the team a better understanding of how to capture the most snot possible, before they even set sail on the open ocean. By 3D printing simulated blowholes for different whale species, they were able to test their SnotBot designs and make updates, saving them valuable time on their expeditions & avoiding prototype testing over live animals.

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

Along with their ocean and whale research, Ocean Alliance has spearheaded the development of an on-site robotics program. The Applied Robotics Club meets every Wednesday evening, providing an opportunity for people in the community young and old, to learn and explore anything from coding to design & construction, giving them to get hands-on experiential learning. Dr. Kerr has not only enjoyed the MakerBot 3D printer for SnotBot prototyping, but with the robotics club.

The 3D printer has been invaluable! Not only in building unique parts that we need, and silly things that we might not need, but were fun to do, it has also helped us develop our thought and design process. It also encouraged both students and staff to explore ideas of building components that otherwise would almost be unimaginable.”

SnotBot Expeditions

Since it’s first iteration, the SnotBot has been thoroughly tested and went on its first expedition this past fall in Peninsular Valdez, Patagonia. Ocean Alliance chose this location due to its enormous biodiversity. Since the 1970’s, they have been studying in Patagonia, with this last expedition being a great success.

We have just completed the first successful SnotBot expedition to Patagonia. We have proved the viability of these drones as useful and adaptable research tools. In the course of the next year we plan to run a minimum of two more expeditions, one to the Sea of Cortez and one to Frederick Sound, Alaska, to build up our data sets, get as many flights over whales and work with as many whale species as our budget will allow.”

These future locations were specifically chosen based on the species that frequent the habitat and drawing from the experience of Ocean Alliance’s previous research expeditions.

The Future Of SnotBot

Formulating innovative and new ideas like the SnotBot takes brainpower and a determination to try multiple iterations. Traditional manufacturing methods cost extensive time and money, two things that are precious to not-for-profit organizations like Ocean Alliance. Luckily, 3D printing breaks down manufacturing barriers by allowing intricate designs to be built in-house for a substantially lower cost. CAPINC is a proud sponsor of Ocean Alliance and their 3D printing needs.

The future is big for SnotBot and its upcoming designs. With the next two expeditions already funded through their Kickstarter campaign, Ocean Alliance is still in need of donors to help create future SnotBot iterations for new data sets. To learn more about Ocean Alliance and their projects, including the SnotBot, visit them at whale.org and explore their Kickstarter Campaign, where you can become a donor and get frequent updates on their research and expeditions.

SnotBot-Expedition-CTA

“Thank you, FLIR!” from OA Scientific Coordinator Andy Rogan

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During the summer of 2014, whilst studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to the FLIR Corporation we had the opportunity to test a night vision (Infrared) system aboard our research vessel Odyssey.

How these cameras work is complex, involving the range of light which they detect. Whilst not technically accurate, they essentially detect heat. This means that they are commonly used in night vision applications as they do not require the same visible light which allows us to see the world around us. Since they display an image based on temperature differentials they actually have daytime and night-time uses.

At Ocean Alliance we are always looking for new tools and technologies which might help us better understand whales. One problem with studying whales (and indeed many animals) is that we do not have a good understanding of what they do at night, simply because we cannot see them. Are they searching for and eating food? Are they mating? Socialising? Resting? Does their behaviour even change much during a day/night cycle? Whales are acoustic animals, which means sound is very important in their everyday lives. By listening to them (via an underwater microphone or hydrophone) we can gain a better understanding of where they are and what they might be doing at night and during the day. But it often leaves us with a very incomplete picture.

This is where infrared cameras & the FLIR Corporation come in. FLIR is the world leader in the design, manufacture and marketing of thermal imaging infrared cameras. FLIR cameras are used for many military, commercial and recreational activities. The value of FLIR systems in search & rescue and disaster situations is incalculable. New products to the market include the FLIR One that fits on the back of an iPhone and the FLIR Vue which fits on a drone.

As you can see from the attached video, this technology is a game changer enabling us to study whales at night. Indeed you can often see where the whales have been simply by the wake and the footprint which they leave. When we did test studies on our vessel, the camera was so powerful that it could see where we had been standing because our feet had left residual heat on the deck! We even observed Sperm whales breaching at night, something which likely has never been seen before (sadly the only footage we have of this event was taken on a smart phone looking at the video display).

For us this is all very exciting, and leads to many possibilities. Along with our interest in new technologies we are very excited about our ‘SnotBot’ program, which is all about developing drones for whale research (you can read more about it here). In the future we will be merging these two technologies, mounting a FLIR Vue camera on SnotBot!

We also think that this tool has enormous potential for other industries which might come in to contact with whales. Ship strikes are a major threat to whales all around the world. If we could fit vessels with FLIR cameras which could detect whales at night, we could potentially stop many needless whale deaths. Oil and gas companies use seismic airguns when searching for hydrocarbon deposits beneath the seabed. These airguns are incredibly loud and potential harmful to whales. If they had FLIR camera they would have a better idea of whether there were any whales in the vicinity at night. These are just two examples of how FLIR cameras could help protect whales.

Many, many thanks must go to the FLIR Corporation for being an innovator in this field and for lending us this remarkable piece of equipment.

Andy Rogan is Ocean Alliance Scientific Coordinator.

CEO Iain Kerr Joins Advisory Board of Drone World Expo

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Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr has been named to the Advisory Board of Drone World Expo, where “thought leaders, industry experts, and end-users gather in the heart of Silicon Valley to present real-world solutions to business and environmental challenges.”  The advisory board, comprised of several prominent industry leaders, will help set the direction of the education program for the 2016 event, to be held November 15-16 at the San Jose Convention Center in San Jose, CA.

During the 2015 event, our partner Yuneec Aviation proudly displayed how we deployed its drones in the first SnotBot expedition in Patagonia.

DCIM100GOPRO

The complete press release from Drone World Expo can be found here.

 

Extended Interview with Sir Patrick Stewart

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Our Kickstarter campaign was an enormous success, we already have one SnotBot field season behind us (Patagonia) and we are now prepping for our SnotBot expedition to the Sea of Cortez. One of the people who was there from the start of this project was Sir Patrick Stewart. You may have seen the Kickstarter video with Sir Patrick (if not go to the left hand side of our homepage http://www.whale.org) but what you have not seen is an extended interview with Sir Patrick where he shares his deeper interest in SnotBot and wildlife in general.

Video Highlights of our SnotBot Patagonia Expedition

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Over the last six months there has been a lot of talk and a lot of press about our innovative research drone SnotBot.  The million-dollar question then is, “Does SnotBot work?”  Watch the video below, and you decide.

The camera we used to guide us to the whale and position us over the blow holes was recording all the time.  Not only did we capture a lot of snot, we also captured totally unique footage, including a very precious moment between a mother and calf right whale.

Thanks again to our Kickstarter backers and other donors who helped make this possible!  Please consider making a donation to Ocean Alliance today, on #GivingTuesday, at whale.org/donate.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #6: “Pack Your Bags, We Are Heading To Patagonia”

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This update was written by John Graham, Ocean Alliance Robotics Coordinator.

It was less than one week ago today that I was standing on the seaside cliffs of Patagonia observing whales go by just below me. It feels very surreal to me to think back on the last two weeks as being more than just an amazing dream, but the photos I have from the trip provide me with proof that it was all very real. So let’s back up a little bit, back to August 25th. On that day I was at work when I got a text. No, THE text. The one that simply said “Pack your bags. We are going to Patagonia”. WHAT!!! Wait a minute. Where is Patagonia? (geography isn’t my strongest suit). Oh, Argentina. Oh, and we leave in less than 1 month. This is going to be awesome!

Fast forward about 3 weeks, 4 airports, 3 planes, 1 hotel, 4 cabs, 1 car rental, 3+ hours of driving, and more security checks than I could keep track of, and we have arrived in the small town of Puerto Piramides, Argentina. This is to be our home base for the next 2 weeks. It doesn’t take us long to convert our accommodations into what some would describe as a scene from a Spielberg movie in which drones have taken over our world. Well that’s what you get when you travel with 16 large cases of research equipment.

About Piramides: it is a wonderful little town whose main source of revenue is from whale watching. The people are very open and accepting of outsiders. Their patience even extended to my minuscule ability to speak Spanish. Most of my language training comes from my exposure in the healthcare field, but I don’t think asking if they are having any pain or need medication will get me very far. We managed to find a small restaurant called “Guanacos” that served up delicious meals and, more importantly, had wifi. Albeit the wifi was touch and go, and poor Iain would stay up late praying to the internet gods that the emails he painstakingly sent out, actually did go out. We witnessed a lot of the dreaded spinning wheel of computer progress that trip.

Every morning we would make the 45 minute drive down dirt and gravel roads to the whale camp. It was amazing to look around and see nothing but dry brush, sheep, and guanacos. (Side note: Guanacos are like llamas) Iain did his best to keep the anemic rental car on the route, all the while eating the morning’s meal of empanadas. I lost the challenge of “who can spot a guanacos first” game, so I had to unlock the 2 large wooden gates every morning that allowed us access to the whale camp.

The Camp: no modern conveniences; no electric except for the occasional generator to charge drone batteries; no running water except for collected rainwater used only for washing dishes. Very desolate and very beautiful. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, this is what I would describe as my vision of Nirvana. The energy that is created from the union of sea, sky, and land is breathtaking. We are greeted by not only the science team from the whale camp but also by the sight of whales. Whales as near and as far as you can see. Breaching, tail lobbing, and most importantly to us, the nectar for which Snotbot thirsts for, whale blow!!!

The Whale Camp continues a long-running study of the southern right whale that Dr. Roger Payne started back in the ‘70s. Ocean Alliance conducts this study with the support and partnership of Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB http://www.icb.org.ar/). A hike up onto the cliffs high above the camp leads to the site at which a small outpost once stood on the edge overlooking the sea, which was the place where Roger & team would sit and observe whale behaviors. All that now remains is scattered debris, but the site still echoes of past optimism for a world that includes cetaceans playing a major role in the health of our planet. One can’t help but to feel that energy carrying over today. It was also very meaningful to be here with Iain at the location at which he and Roger first met.

The ICB crew at WHALE camp, led by Mariano Sironi, was one of the greatest group of dedicated oceanographic research staff I’ve ever met. Their eagerness to help with whatever task was placed before us was refreshing and much welcomed. Also, the camp may not possess any of today’s modern conveniences, but they sure do know how to cook with what they’ve got. I wasn’t going to return home any pounds lighter after Mariano’s bread pudding con Dulce de Leche.

We worked all day, every day, in the pursuit of succeeding in our missions. These included the collection of exhaled breath condensate from whales (aka SNOT), photogrammetry, and whale identification. It was slow going at first, but the team quickly adapted and devised a system that worked well and before you know it, we were putting our first samples into a minus 80 deg dewar (a giant vacuum flask) for preservation. It was both an honor and a thrill to be a part of such ground-breaking research technology.

The team consisted of Iain Kerr (team leader and primary drone pilot), Carolyn Miller (WHOI researcher and resident expert on the drone affectionately called “Archie”) and me (drone technician and backup pilot). We would take to the sea most days in a small inflatable Zodiac piloted by Marco, a guy that would do whatever was needed of him, which mostly consisted of the frequent pull starts of the boat’s aging and uncooperative outboard. Guys like Marco are a rare breed and my life is richer having had the opportunity to work along side of him.

JohnIainMarcos

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the famous outhouse. You would sit (as one does in an outhouse) leave the door open, and you would have the most spectacular view you’ve ever had while taking care of business. Talk about your perfect moments in time. Sadly, all future versions of this ritual will never be able to hold a candle to that point in time.

photo 5[6]

We set up a small workshop in the metal corrugated Quonset hut on the beach that usually would serve as the boat house. Here is where I was able to put all my skills learned while watching “MacGyver” to the test. When working in the field at such a remote location as this you learn quickly the value of preparing for the worst and making the most of what you have on hand. At one point we had run into an issue with one of the cameras on a drone. Some loose parts, a hacksaw, bits of wire and solder, and, of course, duct tape, and we were back up and running. We all proved our worth on this expedition, Iain flew near flawlessly, and Carolyn processed the specimens and data with the utmost of care. And I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the tireless work and emotional support of the Ocean Alliance staff that helped make this trek even possible.

photo 3[7]

I would have to say that being in a small boat and having huge whales swim just feet to inches right underneath me, was an experience like no other. I was never scared, more at peace than anything else. This comes in at a close second only to being soaked straight in the face by a curious juvenile checking out what the heck we were doing. His thought process must have been something like: “What? You want whale blow? I’ll give you whale blow!” Well, thanks and gesundheit!!! (see blog The whales are Laughing)

JohnReadytowork

The hardest part of being away in such a remote part of the world is the lack of communication that I had with my wife. No cell phone, no texting, no landline, just the occasional emails that we would write to one another and hope the other receives it within a day or so. New technology has spoiled us with a sense of instant gratification, and we’ve lost sense of the importance of patience.

As I sit back and reflect upon my own personal journey, I can feel the warmth in my soul glowing at the memories and friendships made. All in all, I would consider it to be a very successful expedition. I consider myself truly blessed.

In the future, if I am ever asked to think of a “happy place” it will be a toss-up between the high cliffs of Patagonia or the outhouse with the million dollar view.

DroneBarnsunset

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #5: “The whales are laughing!”

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I have spent a lot of time in the field, working in over 20 countries more often than not trying to get close enough to animals (without disturbing them) to collect data, whether it be behavioral, health or physical samples for toxicology etc. Every now and then you have one of these special encounters that resets your perspective, reminds you that we are passengers on space ship earth and not the crew and that the passengers may get what they want, but not always in the way they expected.

We rented a 36 ft boat yesterday, with the idea of being able to spend a full day out on the water, with all of our drones, cameras, controllers, chargers, computers and our dry shipper (a container that has been primed with liquid nitrogen) to preserve our samples.

So 8 of us, consisting of the ICB team — including Marcy Uhart (an Argentine who works for UC Davis) — and the OA team, headed out to sea from the town of Puerto Madryn. Quite quickly we encountered a mother and calf, and we got our first snot sample of the day with Scottie and two photogrammetry samples (mother & calf) with Archie. We then worked for over 45 min to get a Snot Sample from an adolescent whale. It was down when the drone was up and left when we were right and so on and so on. But we were patient and persistent and we eventually got a viable sample. We then moved off about half a mile from the whale to go through some equipment checks and switch batteries etc when one of the crew said a whale was approaching the boat from the stern and it was the adolescent we had just sampled.

To be blunt, the whale swam right up to the boat and we were Snot Bombed (whale version of photo bombing), but in this case it included biological matter from whale lungs – we were repeatedly soaked with snot from a whale that was just feet from the boat, first from the side then from the stern. You may think that I am exaggerating here but there is a a photo below from Archie of the whale Snotting us. In the accompanying photos you can see John and I on the port side of the boat running the drone. Everyone else getting an eyeful. Mariano can be seen holding out a pole that alternated between a Petri dish and his Go Pro, as a result we have our biggest Snot sample yet and video looking down the blow hole during the blow. (I’ll post that video when we get back to the USA.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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After a 10min photo flight with Archie, I brought him back on board and I took out my own camera. Photos of the day were closeups – so close that you can see the individual cyamids on the whales head.

R whale chin
We need to take pause here and remember that we have spent almost two weeks down here focused on collecting snot, when we see a whale blow and we are not able to get to the whale we are frustrated – we have become a little Snot focused dare I say Snot obsessed and then a whale comes over to our boat and soaks us – be advised that whale breath in small quantities is great. In large quantities it is not that nice, I don’t think that they brush their baleen at night. In the space of 20 min we were all thoroughly Snotted and poor old Carolyn was having a real problem with all of her sterile equipment that was not so sterile any more. Also we could not motor away since the outboard engine was up so the whale would not hit it – so we had to sit it out or maybe Snot it out (sorry).

So why did the whale do this? We don’t know, but the best guess from Mariano is that the adolescent whales are bored and when they see something new just floating in the water they check it out, perhaps thinking that it is a new toy they can play with. After about 20 min when they realize how boring human boats can be they just go on they way and look for something more interesting. If we did not have the remarkable accompanying photos – this story would be hard to believe. It was certainly an amazing experience for the whole team, more than once we were eye to eye with an animal as big as our boat, it refocused all of us as to the importance of learning all that we can about these animals so that we can preserve them for ocean health and diversity and future generations.

As we reflect I guess it goes back to the old saying “be careful for what you wish for” or maybe just maybe… the whales are having a laugh at our expense.

From the VERY snotty skies of Patagonia – that’s how the Snot flies.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #4: “It’s all about the Team”

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Key components of any effective research expedition are flexibility and adaptability. You plan a project, in our case at 43 degrees North with the goal of implementing it at 43 degrees South, and guess what? things don’t always go to plan. We had hoped to do a lot of data collection flying from the shore line, but for some reason the whales this year have decided to spend more time offshore – so the team jumps into a 13 foot 20 yr old zodiac with at 12 yr old two stroke outboard and off we go.

The drones to all intents and purposes are small computers, we also have a variety of transmitters and receivers on the boat (that are also small computers), and then small video displays so that we can have a First Person View of the action from the drone. This means that one good wave over the bow or one piece of equipment dropped onto the floor of the boat (which as much as we bail out is always wet) and the experiment is either over for the day or for the trip. Computers and salt water don’t work together period.

Even so we have been going out two or three miles from our camp every day to find whales. We are encountering 10 to 15 whales a day which is good, but we need to keep moving so we are not sampling the same whales all the time. At least twice the weather was fine when we left camp and then 3 or 4 hours later the winds pick up and we have been beating our way back to camp with equipment in our clothes and in waterproof cases. With all of this equipment onboard in a confined wet space we have been running to strict protocols to make everything work.

A start up flight might go like this:  Everyone in position (yes), Everyone ready to fly (yes) OK – Transmitter on, video & data screens on, calibrate gyros (throttle up and to the left), altitude hold engaged, position hold engaged, boat mode on, check all RC transmitter switches, start cameras on drone (hold as steady as you can so that the camera gyro matches the camera level with the horizon). Take a photo blank to check camera & video systems. Carolyn wipes down the collection arm (one more time) with alcohol and puts on the sterile petri dish. When we say we are ready to fly she takes the top off the petri dish. OK ready to fly, pick up drone and hold it above your head into the wind, remover petri dish cover. All clear (Yes) start engines, throttling up 3,2,1 fly. Start timer, where are the whales?

Find the drone

After a 12 to 20 min flight (depending on which drone we are flying) we fly back to the boat and either John or Mariano hand catch the drone (see photo). Then we hold the drone in place while Carolyn removes the petri dish which she puts into a sterile bag and a cooler.

DCIM100GOPRO
We then look for the next group of whales and head toward them.
Since we are running two different scientific programs, we will often collect a few snot samples with our Yuneec Typhoon drone (Scottie) and then head back into shore and drop Carolyn off to process the samples. Mariano (Scientific Director of our Argentine partner ICB – Instituto Conservación Ballenas) will replace Carolyn and we will head out to do the Photogrammetry program with the WHOI drone Archie. When the weather is good we try to spend as much time on the water as we can.
The tidal range here is over 20 feet so on occasion we have come back to a huge beach in front of the camp – we lug all of our equipment back, return to the dingy and then the inflatable has to be broken down (remove engine, fuel tank etc etc) and then carried/ dragged back to camp.

Big tides
To spend all day in a small boat with 3 other people all the while juggling computers, salt water, drones, cameras & working with whales takes a lot of patience and a lot of energy. We have a great team here from ICB team member Marcos (who coaxes a 12 yr old outboard to life again and again) and always gets us into the best position to fly to the whales & the full shore support team courtesy of ICB. It has been hard work, but we are excited to be troubleshooting new technologies and trying to determine the best ways to make them work for science. How lucky we are to spend time with Right whales, make new friends and work to better understand and conserve the wild world.

Thank you to all of the team in Gloucester for supporting this expedition from our headquarters. I’m off to bed, up at 7:00 am tomorrow to catch the high tide.

And that’s how the Snot flies in Patagonia!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #3: “It’s all about the Snot”

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It’s pretty incredible to be sitting in a small boat about half a mile off the Argentine coast with three friends surrounded by right whales and to be flying a drone.  I have been a RC enthusiast for most of my life, and it was just over 4 years ago that I had the idea to try and bring my hobby and work together.  I had been reading so much about military drones and advances in technology that I felt sure that there was something that could be done with these remarkable machines for the benefit of the wild world and ultimately humanity.

So here we are flying small drones over whales – today I did a total of thirteen flights, each flight lasting around 12 minutes.  I am flying a WHOI drone called Archie to conduct a Photogrammetry study (determine whale size and health through photos – see photo below), and of course flying our Yuneec drones to collect Snot.

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This whole program is a bit of a logistical nightmare. There are so many things to do and check before you get in the boat. We are collecting scientific data, so we need all of the supporting data, latitude and longitude, time, length of flight, height, size of petri dish, animal type, calf, mother etc etc etc).  Flying from a 13 foot inflatable boat, we have to hand launch and recover the drones, so the launcher needs to have on a helmet, safety glasses and gloves. We do not want to contaminate any of the Snot we collect, so our scientist Carolyn from WHOI thoroughly cleans the drone beforehand and wears a mask and gloves.  The launcher also wears a mask so as not to breath or sneeze onto the collection plates.

When we are about 100 to 200 feet from a whale, we stop the boat’s outboard engine and take up flight positions.  I go to the back and sit on the outboard motor, John goes to the front and gets ready to launch the drone, Carolyn is beside him and Marcos keeps an eye on the drone when it is in the air at all times and also drives the boat.  When everyone says that they are ready, I turn on the remote control, John then turns on the drone (keeping it as level as possible so that the camera, gyroscopes and GPS calibrate correctly).  When that is done, John attaches a 2 to 3 foot carbon fibre pole to the bottom of the drone (this pole has a adjustable angle platform at the bottom onto which we put a 6 inch diameter petri dish).

When we see a whale on the surface, Carolyn attaches the petri dish to the platform; she puts one half facing down and the other half facing up.  We are now in sterile conditions, so we take flight as soon as possible.  I fly our Yuneec Typhoon (that we now call Scottie) towards the whale standing up in the dingy, when we are about 50 feet away and I can see the whale in the FPV (first person view) camera screen, I sit down and often put a blanket over my head to keep out the light.  When I reach the whale flying about 25 feet above the water I tilt the camera straight down, when the camera is pointing down we can see our collecting plate (see photo below). I orientate the drone so that the head is straight ahead and I fly up the body towards the head.  When I am above the blow hole with the camera pointing straight down, I drop down to about 12 feet and hover above the blow hole.

Over blow hole

This is when life gets really difficult.  If the wind is blowing the snot can go one way, because of gull harassment some of the whales arch their bodies to keep them underwater (so the seagulls can’t peck their skin) in this case their blows shoot forward, some shoot the blows aft and others straight up one time and then sideways the next time.  Since we have time to stay about the whale, we can sit through a few blows to get the feel for the best place to position the drone.  When you get a blow you know it, thanks to the down looking camera I can see the blow shoot snot straight onto the collection petri dish.

Snot Petri

If it is a robust sample I fly straight back to the boat, if not I try to get a couple more blows on the plate before returning to the boat.  John hand catches Scottie (still wearing a mask) and holds the drone while Carolyn removes and seals up the collection plate, which she puts into a sterile zip lock bag and then into a cooler (in case we collect more snot before going back to camp). Typically our flights are no longer than about 12 minutes, and after collecting snot samples from two individuals we like to go back to shore so Carolyn can process them (more from Carolyn on this later).

In a later post I will talk more about what we have learnt with regards to flying drones over whales and what drones have worked best for us.  We brought down 3 different drones and my favorite is not what I thought it would be. That’s it for now from the Patagonia Team; more soon.

And that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #2

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The weather forecast said no wind today so we got up at 6:00 am this morning and rushed out to whale camp. We have bought some great empanadas the night before and we ate them on the drive out. Alas when we got to whale camp just before 7:00 am the whole area was covered in fog. We could hear whales blowing and snorting very near by but we could not see them. We sent one of our Yuneec drones into the fog in case it was clearer offshore but even though we went out over 1000 ft everything was socked in – we got a very damp drone back. So we serviced and cleaned our equipment (& read manuals) until just after 10:30 am when the fog burnt off.

Fog at Camp

The good news is that we than had some GREAT Snot Bot flights, we did not get Snot, the whales we were working with seemed to be resting and exhaled very slowly – I can say that because we were literally looking down the blowhole – See photo, you can see the snot collector Petri dish. It was great practice to see if we could hold position over a whales blowhole and we are very optimistic and excited for the work ahead.

Later in the day we flew the WHOI drone (Archie) to get some photogrammetry images. We managed to photograph 11 animals, 5 mother calf pairs and one solo whale. I fly watching the video feed from the drone and have a black cloth over my head to keep the sun out. It was pretty exciting today when tracking the whale I saw our small inflatable boat come into the image. The whales seemed curious and came over to check the boat out, you can see that the engine is not running on our dingy nor are we making way – the whales came to us. I am under the back cloth with John Graham, Marcos our ICB team member and Carolyn are also visible in the boat.

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From the Snot Bot Patagonia team – that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #1

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Dear Friends,

We made it to Patagonia with the Snot Bots – thanks to all of you who supported this project.  I am traveling with Carolyn Miller from WHOI and John Graham from Gloucester.  My job will be to pilot SnotBot, Carolyn is dealing with the data and John is keeping everything running and is the back up pilot.  The trip down was pretty brutal with a day flight from Boston to Miami, an overnight flight from Miami to Buenos Aires and then a 5:20 am flight from Buenos Aires to Trelew which necessitated a 3:00 am wake up call.  We are about 42.5 degrees South and 64.3 degrees West.  We are working out of our camp in Argentina where Ocean Alliance has been conducting aerial surveys of Southern right whales since 1971.

We had to get some friends to come to the airport to meet us with their truck because we have a total of 16 bags.  It was fun getting them through customs… The whale camp in Gulfo San Jose is very remote, a small generator (only on when yo need it), no phone no internet and 40 min to a small town with minimal supplies (Piramides).  So we brought about every spare part and tool that we thought we would need (and then some).  After checking into a small apartment in Piramides (no phone, internet or comfy chair).  We went out to whale camp and worked on setting up the drones in the old boat house until about 8:30 pm, we got back to Piramides at 10:00pm and then ate dinner.  A very long day.

Next morning we were up at 7:00 and went back out to camp, alas the temperatures have been in the 50’s with rain and wind speeds up to 20 Knots. Not conducive for flying or collecting Snot or photos.

Patagonia remains one of the most amazing meeting places of land, sea and wildlife.  We have taken on a challenge with the hope of conducting the Snot Bot & Photogrammetry program in 12 days – but providing the weather gives us a break we will make it happen!

We are very grateful for the support that we have been given by the electronic flight company Yuneec – we have two Typhoon drones and one Tornado.  I was flying the Tornado today in 20 knots of wind and while I was feeling a bit unsure the Tornado flew like a dream.  Our snot collection devices are petri dishes on a long pole that hangs beneath the drone.

SnotCollector-scaled

“As I prepare the research drones for their daily mission in the makeshift workshop on the beach, I am lucky to have a spectacular view of the whales and its hard not to be moved by the nurturing and playful behavior of these giant sentinels of the sea”  John Graham

DroneBarn

“While others told me that Patagonia was spectacular its hard to comprehend the beauty and wildlife diversity without seeing it first hand.  Yes we have been fighting the weather, but I am confident that we will soon be very busy, in the meantime I am excited to be here and be a part of this program.”  Carolyn Miller

DroneBarn2

We are all set up here and ready to go.  Tomorrow we will be up at 6:00 am in the hope of catching some calm early morning weather. Keep your fingers crossed.  As soon as we have data and photos we will be posting them.  Watch this space!

 

10 Reasons You’ll Feel Good Joining Team Snotbot

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Our Snotbot Kickstarter is launched and in full swing. It’s an exciting opportunity for Ocean Alliance to again make a splash in the natural world, with drones! And here are some of the reasons why backing us on Kickstarter will make you feel like a million bucks.

 

  1. It’s tax deductible! We are a 501c3 nonprofit, and your pledge, minus the fair market value of the reward, is deductible on your taxes like any other charity donation! This means you can feel even better about giving.
  2. You help Gloucester stay on the innovation map. Our hometown of Gloucester, MA is undergoing a transition – for centuries, we were a busy fishing port until depletion of stocks  led to a sharp decline in the industry. But Gloucester is not only surviving, it’s blossoming into a new marine-engineering and technology friendly place to run an organization – and we want to continue our goal of turning the iconic Paint Factory into a world-class marine education and research center.
  3. Snotbot is tied in with our robotics program!  On the grounds of our Paint Factory headquarters, we have a robotics laboratory made out of an old shipping container! We provide a weekly robotics meetup called Paint Factory Flyers, and we aim to provide every kid who wants to be involved a way to make their own RC plane, whether or not they have the financial means. Often, we have many children (as young as 6) and teens flying drones in the field! We love getting kids involved with STEM.
  4. You’re helping the whales. Whales are amazing, smart animals – but they’re massively sensitive to ocean acoustics. We aim to see what is stressing them – and in the case of the endangered Southern Right Whale, they can’t afford to be stressed out.
  5. We prove that drones have a positive use. Sometimes, drones and quadcopters are misunderstood or maligned in print. We are here to prove that they have a positive and necessary use in marine sciences and in all types of research.
  6. You get cool stuff in return! We have everything from hoodies, bandanas, and t shirts to interesting rewards like flexidisc recordings of whale songs from the 1970’s!
  7. We are able to quickly do research in a fast-changing climate – this isn’t a five year project, where climate change will outpace our research. We can do this soon, so that the data we get can be used as quickly as possible. If we can
  8. You Make Patrick Stewart happy! He has been a great friend to Ocean Alliance, and has even come on a research expedition! He generously gave us his time for this video, and he also loves drones, and Snotbot!
  9. You provide jobs. Locally, Ocean Alliance provides jobs to the Gloucester area, and during our expeditions, we’ll also need additional help. Keeping STEM jobs local is a huge goal for us, and with Snotbot, we’re on our way.
  10. You become part of the Snotbot team. We will bring you updates before, during, and after our expeditions – with stunning ocean photography caught from drones. We’ll regale you with stories and interact with our backers whenever we can. This is a great opportunity for families to follow a STEM-based excursion and show the next generation that science and engineering are fun and engaging.

Spring is the Air – and so are SnotBots!

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As the conference paper writing the team has been engrossed in wrapped up last Friday the 27th, the team decided to take a break and get back into the swing of things by pulling out the equipment and having a “fly day” on Sunday featuring our recently added fleet member, The Bullfrog, and our new pal the IRIS+ (affectionately named Morticia).

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Morticia sitting on the paving stones in ‘The O’ on Olin College’s campus.

Along with new fleet members, we also have welcomed several new team members to the fold at Olin College, who are looking to work on everything from software to electrical systems, and hardware modifications to fleet vehicles and accessories.

Professor Bennett and team member Rocco (‘18), connecting Morticia to the ground station (the computer). This will enable flight data to be recorded, and failsafes to engage in case anything happens to the controller or radio during flight.

Professor Bennett and team member Rocco (‘18), connecting Morticia to the ground station (the computer). This will enable flight data to be recorded, and failsafes to engage in case anything happens to the controller or radio during flight.

Team Member Rocco (‘18) test flying Morticia.

Team Member Rocco (‘18) test flying Morticia.

The Olin College crew hopes to make it out to Gloucester soon to start practice flights over the water, and test the autonomy code. Right now as the semester at Olin is winding down, we’re making all the preparations necessary to make the transition to the Summer team as seamless as possible. This means finishing up our software development and hardware prototypes, documenting the work that’s been done, and getting new members trained on everything they’ll need to have a successful (and fun) summer.

Update from Olin College: Spring Semester, Snow, and SnotBot

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If you haven’t yet heard about SnotBot, it has been an ongoing partner project with Ocean Alliance and Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA. The goal – to create a robotic research assistant for field research voyages that can safely and efficiently collect whale blow – has been being tackled by several groups of research students over the last year. The fleet, a set of small multirotor drones affectionately named SnotBots, are equipped with various sensors in order to run human-program missions or ‘think’ for themselves during autonomous missions.

Throughout the Fall Semester, the SnotBot team at Olin College was working on getting a new team up to speed and setting up for this semester. We spent those twelve weeks gathering documentation sources, writing papers, downloading new software, redesigning SnotBot landers, outfitting SnotShot with sensors- the works!

Now, the team is in a place to hit the ground running this semester with the following goals in mind:

  • Develop reliable remote control systems (so a human pilot may override the autonomy at any time)
  • Develop reliable point-to-point mission navigation (so a SnotBot can be told where to go, and actually get there to collect data)
  • Develop a first round of visual navigation systems (so a SnotBot can look around and determine what is something interesting to navigate to)
  • Create a waterproof gimbal housing
  • Create a launcher/lander mechanism (so when launching from or landing on a boat, the SnotBot can reliably/accurately take off and land without human assistance)

Since the start of the semester, the team has managed to set up a new ground control station, which can be used on any laptop running a Windows Operating system, with a joystick controller – now flying the drones will be a lot like flying in a simulator, or flying a starship in a video game. The basic planner, Mission Planner by Ardupilot, will take in the data from the SnotBot brain, and send back control signals during flight. The team can write their own missions, control signals, or commands within the program – or for more control and accuracy, in self-authored Python scripts. Benchtop tests of a program to launch the SnotBot, hover, and land are promising.

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Views of our benchtop test location, and our new ground control station running Mission Planner by Ardupilot, our self-authored Python scripts, and interfacing with a normal joystick controller.

 

 

As the snow fell in New England, the team received two new software members who will be working on computer vision tasks, and communications protocol. The computer vision team has already been able to use computer packages to identify QR codes, which we will use as fiducials – signposts for the SnotBot – during point-to-point navigation tests using the cameras mounted to the chassis.

 

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Team member Jay (‘17) holds up a QR code for identification as Victoria (‘16) snaps a quick photo. The lines you see are tracking matching keypoints on the QR code. These will later be used to help identify the angle, distance, and orientation to the fiducials on the ground during flights.

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To protect those cameras, our mechanical team is wrapping up design work from last semester on a waterproof gimble mount, that could be used on any general chassis with small modification. Right now, the gimbal is ready for some dunk tests, and SnotBot Gray is up for modification. New legs will be reprinted for Gray to accommodate for the size of the new gimbal housing.

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The ‘Bubble’ that will protect the cameras on future SnotBots.

 

As you look forward to the next weeks, expect some videos of autonomous test flights, flyovers with our SnotShot, new sensors, new SnotBot fleet members, and more!

SnotBot on Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet”

By | FEB15, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

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:

Robotics For Kids and Whales

By | FEB15, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

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

Patrick Stewart Supports SnotBot

By | nov14, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

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

Can Drones Help Save Whales?

By | Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Alliance News, Operation Toxic Gulf, Technology | No Comments

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

New Robotics Lab Coming to the Paint Factory

By | jun14, Ocean Alliance News, Paint Factory Headquarters, Technology | No Comments

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

SnotBot and SnotShot Are Coming to Gloucester Harbor

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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, SnotBot 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.

Andrew Bennett and John Graham in front of 3-D printers at work

Andrew Bennett and John Graham in front of 3-D printers at work

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!

 

Meet SnotShot 3.0

By | apr14, Education, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

 

Iain Kerr and Andrew Bennett at Olin College

Iain Kerr and Andrew Bennett at Olin College

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

An Update On Our Robotics Program with Olin College

By | feb14, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

Iain Kerr and Drew BennettOcean 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]

Olin College Robotics LabFor 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

Iain Kerr with Olin College robotics students

Dr. Bennett and his students showing Iain a hexacopter (a five engine drone)

Dr. Drew Bennett with Iain Kerr and students