The SnotBot Paradigm:

A Low-Cost, Non-Invasive Approach to Gathering Whale Samples and Other Data
By: Andy Rogan, Ocean Alliance

The SnotBot Paradigm:

A Low-Cost, Non-Invasive Approach to Gathering Whale Samples and Other Data
By: Andy Rogan, Ocean Alliance

Using Drones to Observe Whales and Collect Data

Profound Implications for Marine Mammal Research

The health of ocean ecosystems is tied directly to the health of whales. If we continue to lose whales, the results will be disastrous—and not just for the oceans, but for our entire planet. Ever since Ocean Alliance’s founder,  Dr. Roger Payne, discovered that humpback whales sing songs and began recording them, Ocean Alliance has been pioneering methods of studying and learning about the lives of these amazing mammals noninvasively, without injuring or disturbing them. 

Our latest innovation is using drones to observe whales and collect data without having to get researchers or boats anywhere near the animals.

We are all aware of the exponential growth of drones today, from military operations to flying over flood-ravaged areas to delivering medicine where it is most needed. They’ve also been used in the aerial observation of marine species populations and to monitor marine protected areas. Because of their utility, there has been a lot of effort put into improving drones, so that their cost has come down even as technology has improved. This improvement includes lower-cost cameras and sensors as well as increased battery power.

Ocean Alliance’s SnotBot program is pushing the boundaries to discover what today’s drones are capable of and how to best collect the data needed to better document humanity’s impact on whales and their habitat. This tailored technology approach has profound implications for marine mammal research and conservation. At present, we are focused on using drones to collect respiratory samples from whales by flying drones through the blow—or snot—of the whale. Hence the name, SnotBot.

With our SnotBot program, we aren’t inventing the technology or reinventing the drone. Instead, we are collaborating with groups such as Parley for the Oceans, Intel, DJI, FLIR, and a number of academic institutions to push the boundaries of how the technology is used. There are a number of exciting advantages to using drones this way.

Custom Built
Non-invasive
Quality Data

The drones are non-invasive.

Before SnotBot, the standard way of getting a biological sample from a whale in the wild involved chasing an extremely acoustically sensitive mammal with a loud motorboat and impaling it with a sampling dart shot from a crossbow.

Imagine if everything your doctor knew about your health came from chasing you around the room with a large needle while blowing an air horn. The chart would say something like, “elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking.”

The data from such an approach would be skewed and would not represent the patient in a natural and undisturbed manner. This is what we believe is happening with some of the traditional methods for collecting biological samples from whales. With SnotBot, we mean to correct this inaccuracy by capturing a clearer picture of whales undisturbed by invasive data collection methods.

In general (though there are obvious exceptions such as the loudness of the research vessel), the further away the researchers can be from the whales, the better. The use of drones drastically increases the amount of distance between whale and research vessel, mitigating the potential impact of the vessel on the whale.

SnotBot is normally 10 feet or more above the whale when it collects samples from the whale’s blow; however, for a larger whale with a more forceful blow (such as the blue whales we have studied in the Sea of Cortez), we can be as high as 20 feet above. The whales are never touched. We’re flying above the whale, we’re collecting various different data streams, and the whale doesn’t even know we’re there. That’s a real advancement in marine mammal science.

Dozens of technological hurdles had to be overcome in order to make the drones capable of collecting a physical sample at this distance in an uncontrolled marine environment. 

A SnotBot Point of View

The drones collect a lot of useful data.

Another advantage is the range of data we are able to collect using just this one tool. Studying marine mammals is typically quite expensive and difficult. The animals are often far offshore, they can travel vast distances, and their home ranges span across entire ocean basins. When using traditional methods to study these animals, you’re collecting one or two forms of data. When you are flying above the whale with a drone, you can collect several types of data at once.

First, we can collect a biological sample: the blow. As you can see in the video we provided to ECO, the drone flies through the exhaled breath condensate (a.k.a. the blow of the whale) and collects the sample. This sample contains DNA, microbiomes, and a trove of other biological information. Studying the blow sample, we can see virus and bacteria loads and potentially even environmental toxins that have been absorbed into the whale’s system. Perhaps most importantly, we can test for levels of hormones, which gives us information on the reproductive cycles and stress levels of these creatures as they are increasingly impacted by human activity in their natural habitats.

The SnotBot’s camera also captures photo ID of the animal. Photo ID has been perhaps the most important form of data collection since the birth of modern whale biology (and, to a large degree, was pioneered by Ocean Alliance’s founder and president, Dr. Roger Payne).

In addition, the drone captures photogrammetry, which can be used to assess the animal’s health condition, and GPS data to track movements along with environmental variables such as wind speed and direction. It can collect amazing behavioral data and is already shedding new light on feeding behaviors, inter- and intra-species interactions, social behaviors, reproductive behaviors, and more. The drone can even be equipped with an infrared camera, such as the Vue Pro from FLIR, which Ocean Alliance has used to spot hotspots on the whales’ bodies and observe how whales bring cool water to the surface via their flukes as they swim. In the future, it will be used to study the whales at night and under low-light conditions.

The drones are low cost.

SnotBots are DJI drones modified by Ocean Alliance engineers to meet our needs. The primary SnotBot drone we use costs around $1,500, though some of the drones we deploy cost significantly less. Most marine mammal research methods for collecting data of this quality are very expensive, which prohibit all but large, well-funded research organizations and academic institutions in the West who can afford large, well-equipped research vessels from conducting this type of research. The affordability of these drones means more researchers can use them, including those in developing nations, non-profits like Ocean Alliance, and so forth. In general, the more data, the better—and the more people that can use/afford a tool, the better. We can all use this tool to collect massive data sets. In an ocean where whales face more threats than ever before—chemical pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, over fishing, noise pollution, entanglement, and ship strikes—we really need more high-quality data so that we can come up with better solutions to protect these animals.

SnotBot Expedition Goals

Patagonia, Argentina

The objective was simple: to prove that whale blow could be collected using a drone. As this was such a novel concept (others had attempted similar things, but to our knowledge no one had used a drone before), at this stage we weren’t even sure that it would be possible. We succeeded, proving that blow samples from southern right whales could be collected using a drone.

The Future

We have many exciting plans to move this program forward, beginning with another expedition to Alaska in July 2017.

snot-bot_kickstarter1.jpg
Harassing Sir Patrick Stewart For The Whales

Sir Patrick Stuart recently interviewed Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr about SnotBot and using drones for whale research. The extended interview can be found here.

Learn more about SnotBot or support their mission with a donation.

About Ocean Alliance

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Ocean Alliance, Inc., a 501(c)3 organization, was founded in 1971 by biologist Roger Payne. Led by Dr. Payne and CEO Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance collects a broad spectrum of data on whales and ocean life relating particularly to toxicology, behavior, bioacoustics, and genetics. From that data, we work with our scientific partners to advise educators and policy makers on wise stewardship of the oceans to reduce pollution, prevent the collapse of marine mammal populations, maintain human access to fish and other sea life, and promote ocean and human health.

Ocean Alliance is concerned with the conservation of whales and all sea life as well as human impacts on the marine environment. Through the Ocean Alliance program, the Voyage of the Odyssey, we were able to focus on measuring the concentrations of synthetic contaminants that adversely affect the world’s oceans and its marine species. Ocean Alliance is also working to reverse humanity’s general apathy about the fundamental importance of the oceans and the degree to which the future of all life on earth is dependent upon them.

Ocean Alliance believes that the oceans and their marine inhabitants are a common, unique, and irreplaceable asset of humanity. We believe that conservation should be a state of mind. We try to facilitate this process by linking the frontiers of marine science to educational institutions and homes around the world. We aspire to overcome obstacles to change by sharing resources at an international level, realizing that a more informed and active society is a pre-condition to positive change and a necessity for a more responsive and coherent system of ocean governance. For more information, visit whale.org.

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Credits

Writer: Andy Rogan - Andy’s career has focused on research driven conservation of marine mammals. Since obtaining an MSc in Behavioral Ecology in 2012, he has conducted marine mammal field work in the Gulf of Mexico, Australia, the Canary Islands, Alaska, and Baja California. He has also worked in fisheries science, including on a shark and tuna tagging program off of Senegal. His core research interests are studying the most significant threats marine mammals face and the predator-prey interactions of deep-diving toothed whales. As you can see from this article, science communication plays an important role in all of Andy’s activities.

Editors: Greg Leatherman, Robyn Bryant
Photography: Christian Miller, Ocean Alliance.
Creative: John Paquette, Suzanne Short
Production: Suzanne Short

ECO Magazine is a marine science publication committed to bringing scientists and professionals the latest ground-breaking research, industry news, and job opportunities from around the world.

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