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Drones Being Trialed for Whale Research by Ocean Alliance

With the speed at which the drone industry is progressing, there’s always an inspiring new story regarding drones and their various applications in science, military, enterprise, and public use. This month it has been revealed that innovation has gone yet another step forward, with Ocean Alliance developing techniques to use drones for whale research.

Used to collect whale ‘snot’, the blowout that whales release when they surface, drones are making it easier and safer for scientists to perform their work on the oceans.

SnotBots Developed with DJI and Intel

Known informally as SnotBots, drones used by Ocean Alliance were co-developed with DJI. Intel helped by providing machine learning technologies that allow scientists to achieve their research goals.

The use of drones on the ocean is important, because it reduces risk by eliminating the need for researchers to get close to whales, and distress on the marine mammals has also been eliminated. Purpose built fixed wing drones are affixed with custom Petri dishes that collect whale snot as it is expelled into the air.

This snot is critical to whale research. DNA can be collected, and researchers can interpret whale stress, habitat quality, and hormone levels. Collection has typically been problematic and only small sample sizes were possible. Researchers hope that the use of fixed wing drones will allow for larger sample sizes that will provide more meaningful data. The reduction of risk for both whales and researchers is also a major milestone.

Modified Versions of Retail Drones Used

One of the most inspiring aspects of the SnotBots is that they are developed from standard retail drones, with modifications performed to suit the marine environment. Base drones are DJI Phantom 4 and Inspire 1 units. SnotBots are waterproofed, custom sensors are added, and the collection systems used are of laboratory quality.

Ocean Alliance said in a blog post that the SnotBots will allow for researchers to “race over to a whale, collect a sample/multiple samples from the same whale, race back to the research vessel, wait for the sample to be removed and appropriately stored before flying off to the next whale and repeating the process.”

Researchers hope that the use of drone technology will provide valuable insights as they race to understand how climate change, resource extraction, commercial shipping, and other human activities impact whale populations around the world.


META: Commercial drones from DJI are being modified to perform scientific research on the world’s oceans. SnotBots used to collect whale blow for the first time.

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