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SnotBot

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

 

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.

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“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

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“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

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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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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!

By | Ocean Alliance News, Robotics | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

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

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

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