Tech by VICE

Biologists Are Now Collecting Whale Snot With Drones

Whale "blow" is liquid gold.

by Sarah Emerson
Jun 1 2016, 12:00pm

SnotBot meets whale. Image: YouTube/DJI

Whale "blow" is exactly what it sounds like. To us, it's that warm blast of snot, vapor, and biological material that comes rocketing out of a whale's blowhole. But to marine biologists, it's a matter more precious than gold.

Getting snot bombed by a whale—while messy and moist—can allow scientists to analyze the mammal's DNA, microbiome, stress and pregnancy hormones. However, as you can imagine, situating a petri dish above a 40-foot leviathan's head as it surfaces can be quite a doozy, even for the most intrepid of ocean explorers.

The particular challenges of harvesting whale blow were what inspired the conservation and research nonprofit Ocean Alliance to create the Snotbot: a custom-built drone that's not only capable of collecting samples but is also completely non-invasive, or so the organization alleges.

According to the SnotBot's Kickstarter page (the project received full funding last year), the drone is designed to fly closely along the water in anticipation of a whale surfacing. When the animal pops its head up to exhale, the SnotBot will quietly move in to collect its bounty before charting its way back to biologists anchored half a mile away. Its makers ensure that it's a safe, silent, and simple alternative to chasing after the cetaceans in noisy boats.

The SnotBot in flight. Image: Ocean Alliance

As far as specs go, both the DJI Phantom 4 and Inspire 1 were modified to meet the research team's unique needs. In collaboration with the Olin College of Engineering, the group outfitted its weather-ready SnotBots with a waterproof exterior, on-board sensors, and lab-quality collection systems.

Ocean Alliance hopes the SnotBot will allow more biologists to get out in the field without having to secure increasingly hard-to-come-by funding. According to the nonprofit, the current state of field research is too expensive and too competitive, and there's no guarantee that expeditions will even yield usable data.

"Small sample sizes are major bottleneck to most data collection techniques which involve collecting physical, biological samples from large whales," Andy Rogan, a science manager at Ocean Alliance, wrote in a blog post. "SnotBot changes this, by allowing the researcher 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."

There's no doubt that whale research is as limited as its data collection. For example, right now, Australia's humpback whale population is inexplicably growing by 10 percent each year, while Hawaiʻi's humpback residents have mysteriously disappeared altogether. In both cases, no one yet knows why.

And as ocean conditions continue to change at an accelerated rate due to climate change, expanding shipping routes, and natural resource extraction, it's important to understand how these animals are being impacted. Blow samples can tell scientists how whales are responding to environmental stressors on a molecular level.

But some regulatory agencies aren't so sure that swarms of drones—even those used for noble research initiatives—won't pose a risk to already threatened whales. In 2015, Ocean Alliance CEO Dr. Iain Kerr told the Boston Globe that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hadn't made it easy for the SnotBot to fly in open waters.

NOAA's Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to fly an aircraft within 1,000 feet of protected animals such as humpback whales. Meanwhile, the FAA prohibits hobby drones from flying higher than 400 feet. Earlier this year, NOAA issued a warning to a woman who posted a YouTube video of a North Atlantic right whale she'd filmed with a UAV.

Drones and model aircraft can potentially interfere with whales' migration patterns, feeding cycles, breeding, and sheltering, says NOAA. The agency stresses that drone usage for official scientific purposes is a good thing, however, despite these benefits, reckless hobbyists could still end up harassing the protected animals without proper guidance.

Dr. Kerr told me that Ocean Alliance obtained a marine mammal scientific permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to fly the SnotBot in US waters. It took the organization a year to receive federal approval. The research team has also been waiting for an FAA permit, and as part of FAA regulations, will need to hire a licensed airplane pilot.

"We have had to work in other countries because the US seems to be slower in regulating here," Dr. Kerr added. "Looks like there will be big changes this year though."

The SnotBot team recently ventured south to the Sea of Cortez in search of blue, humpback, grey and southern right whales. The mission was considered a success, and marked the second time the drones had ever been used in the wild.

Hopefully for the scientific community, federal regulations will soon catch up to their desperate need for better tools and research capabilities. After all, if one thing's certain for whales, it's that bigger dangers than drones are coming.

This story has been updated to include comments from Ocean Alliance CEO Dr. Iain Kerr.

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