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.
Often then, when you’re on what I like to think of as the bleeding edge (as against the cutting edge) you don’t know how the general public and your supporters will respond to the work you’re doing. When I first started working with Roger Payne in Argentina in the 1980s we were looking at benign research tools such as balloons to get us above whales. There is so much you can learn about an animal if you can just observe it from the air, from observing animal behavior to things like photogrammetry where you are using photos to estimate the size of the animal.
For the last five years we have made an increasing effort in the field of robotics with our partners at the Olin College of Engineering. We see enormous potential not just for our whale research and conservation efforts utilizing drones above, on, and below the ocean’s surface, we believe that some of the techniques we are developing are replicable for other wildlife conservation challenges and are also fulfilling in the field of STEM education.
We are excited that what was until recently a lonely pathfinder role has now gone mainstream with enormous interest not just in conservation robotics but also in the developing fields of marine industrial robotics. As the popularity of recreational drones explodes, the FAA and NOAA are working to regulate the use of drones. The FAA does not allow hobby flyers to fly above 400 ft. and the NOAA regulations put a drone in the same category as an airplane or helicopter, so you’re not allowed to fly within a thousand feet of a whale. This is why up to this point we have not flown above whales, as many other groups outside the U.S. have. At this point OA has permits pending that we hope will allow us to fly within a hundred feet of a whale for our studies.
Sir Patrick Stewart has been a friend and supporter of Ocean Alliance for over two decades. He enjoys reading our monthly newsletter Whale Tales and has been following the robotics work with great interest. Recently Patrick reached out to me and expressed that he and his wife, Sunny Ozell, would like to take an active role in supporting the continued development of this program.
“I find Ocean Alliance’s Robotics Program to be very exciting, not only for SnotBot’s direct benefits but also for the future of wildlife conservation.” – Patrick Stewart
A big thank you to Patrick and Sunny and all of you supporting this work.
-Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance CEO