We had a group of very bright young students from Acera School (a nonprofit K – 8 STEAM school) come to Ocean Alliance yesterday to learn about our Drones For Whale Research program. The visit began with a tour of the Robotics Lab, which included a quick lesson/demo of thermal imaging using our DJI Matrice 210 with Zenmuse XT thermal camera.
The students also got to spend some time on our flight simulator flying various types of multirotor and fixed wing drones. Having worked on mini drones as part of the coursework, they were extremely excited to see Ocean Alliance’s vast collection of drones, old and new, functional and retired, and how the SnotBot drones have developed over the years.
After the Robotics Lab, the tour continued over at our main office in the former Paint Factory to watch some videos of SnotBot in action. The students had also previously learned about microbiomes in their coursework, so we showed them a SnotBot clip from our feature on National Geographic’s TV series One Strange Rock, where astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the importance of microbiomes for all life on Earth.
There’s a lot happening at Ocean Alliance right now. The SnotBot team is about to leave for a research expedition to Alaska, so they are testing drones and various other pieces of equipment to make sure everything is working properly. Our robotics intern, Lydia Zuehsow, is right in the middle of the action. Check out the list of everything she did last week!
Objectives completed this week:
◦ Confirmed waterbuoy PFDs were in stock at Perth Scuba
◦ Researched ways of cutting and patching lifejackets, or otherwise reducing overall bulk
◦ Continued researching compact PFDs: See life jacket alternatives here and here
Rotor wash Slo-mo testing
◦ Obtained fog machine and figured out how to use it with Sam and Austin
◦ Finished setting up aerodynamics test rig and captured some video of rotor wash with Adam, Sam, and Austin.
◦ Researched detection of microplastics and determined computer vision is infeasible.
◦ Researched alternative ways to detect microplastics and arrived at ultrasonic sensors.
◦ Registered the new Inspire 1 V2 with the FAA as “Kirk”
◦ Ordered CPL lens for the X4S (This should have arrived by now.)
◦ Compared screen size of potential new iPad with current FPV setup
◦ Determined that the CineSSD error was caused by hardware incompatibility
◦ Restored the center screen target marker in the DJI app
◦ Fixed the Inspire yaw drift
◦ Typed up manual for the INTEL Falcon 8+ drone
◦ Attended basic pilot training conference call for Falcon 8+
The Robotics Laboratory and Club was made possible by the generous support of the Applied Materials Foundation.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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, TheBullfrog, and our new pal the IRIS+ (affectionately named Morticia).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Ocean Alliance has had a busy spring. The research vessel Odyssey is having a successful campaign in the Gulf of Mexico with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and reconstruction has started on brick buildings A, B and the chimney of our headquarters–the Paint Factory. Our plan remains to put our robotics lab upstairs in building A, but our robotics program is outpacing the readiness of the building. Antonio Bertone to the rescue. Read More