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.
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.
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.
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!