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Saving Whales: One Drone at a Time

A group of Olin College students just returned from a research trip in the Gulf of Mexico where they tested drones that will be used to answer real-world research questions related to the health of whales. Gloucester-based Ocean Alliance (www.whale.org), an internationally renowned whale and ocean conservation research group, led the trip.

The drones, dubbed “Snot Bots,” were created in Olin’s robotics lab with the help and guidance of Mechanical Engineering Professor Drew Bennett. Students Matt Rush ’14, Silas Hughes ’14 and Jay Wu ’15 spent 10 days aboard the research vessel Odyssey.                 

Snot Bot” will be used to collect DNA, bacteria, viruses and stress hormones from whale blows.  The team also tested “Snot Shot”, a machine that makes a simulated whale blow (with the capacity to simulate different blow types) on demand—a testing tool that will actually help the scientists in the field collect a control sample.

Snot Bot is a marine “ruggedized” research small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS), equipped with a first person view camera, GPS positioning, target-based positioning, altitude lock and other guidance systems.

It works something like this: as Snot Bot flies out to a whale that is approximately 300m from the research vessel, it hovers over a whale and the whale repeatedly blows onto a collection device. After the sample is collected and brought back to the RV Odyssey, the data is used to help interpret an animal’s state of heath through the analysis of bacteria, viruses, DNA and stress hormones recovered from the whale’s blow. 

“This has been a terrific educational opportunity and a serious engineering challenge; making drones that can be used by the researchers and can operate in the salty, unpredictable ocean environment requires substantial engineering skills,” says Bennett. “Workng with Ocean Alliance has been enjoyable and rewarding. I’m grateful to them for giving us the opportunity to participate.”

According to Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, there is so much we still have to learn about whales and how human activities from ocean noise to ocean pollution may affect them. To help conserve an endangered species you need to know as much as you can about the physical wellbeing of the animal. The more direct information scientists can gather, the better decisions they can make with regards to the animal’s welfare.

In addition, as researchers try to refine the data they collect they are looking to minimize the effect they might have on the animal or the environment. Certainly, if scientists are looking to collect data on animal stress, they don't want to further stress the animal in the process of collecting that data.

“I am concerned that much of the work currently being done to collect stress hormones from whales could actually be actually be causing the animal stress. We want to collect data from animals without them even knowing and I think that these emerging technologies have the potential to vastly increase our knowledge,” says Kerr.

In order to get the go-ahead to perform research on whales in US waters, Ocean Alliance is undergoing an extensive permitting process.

To that end, when the team performed experiments in the Gulf of Mexico this summer they were not with whales. The data they collected though will be used in the permitting process. Olin College will continue to work on “Snot Bot” at the Needham campus and at a new robotics lab at the Gloucester headquarters of Ocean Alliance.