Robotics For Kids and Whales

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.

Testing a drone during Operation Toxic GulfIf we now jump ahead forty years, we are still developing benign research techniques, but we are now trying to develop tools that won’t affect the animal’s behavior (see Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal). One of the most compelling of this new generation of tools has been SnotBot, a small drone we’ve developed with Olin College of Engineering that collects whale mucus (containing stress hormones) from their blows, so that we can try to better understand what causes stress to whales without stressing them.

We knew when we built our Robotics Lab that we would not be using it 24/7 for our own projects. The idea was that the lab would have three principal uses: Ocean Alliance projects; Olin College projects; and community projects. We have now launched our Applied Robotics Club on Wednesday nights from 7-9 and we plan to expand this to two time slots a week to include younger students. Ultimately we hope that students who come to the club will help us develop a new generation of research tools. For now we are starting the process with mentors teaching construction, soldering, programming and flight school. We have three different simulators so kids can learn to fly anything from a seaplane to a quadcopter to a sailboat.

Ocean Alliance Applied Robotics ClubThe goal is not to replicate some of the great work being done in our local schools, but to provide an opportunity for people in the community not associated with the school robotics programs. When you ask a student to write programming code to keep a machine 10 feet above the water it might not be that exciting, but you should see the smile on their face when you ask them to write code to fly a machine to collect whale snot and bring it back to the boat. We have had three meetings so far, and I can say that it won’t be long before the students will be teaching the teachers.

Anyone interested in participating in the club can reach us at Thank you to the Applied Materials Foundation for providing the equipment, Antonio Bertone for providing our temporary Robotics Lab, and our mentors Coach L (Kurt Lichtenwald of Gloucester High), James Dowd, Stevens Brosnihan and John Graham for bringing this program to life.

– Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance