Drones for Good: These Bots Can Save the Whales by Collecting Their Snot

A new fund-raising campaign aims to collect valuable data without poking and prodding the gentle giants.

(Photo: Ocean Alliance)

Jul 29, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Ali Swenson is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is editor-in-chief of Loyola Marymount University’s news outlet, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and has worked in nonprofit media.

When Iain Kerr started his career in whale and ocean conservation 30 years ago, the field’s approach to research was grim.

“Let me be blunt,” said Kerr, CEO of marine conservation nonprofit Ocean Alliance. “When I started in this industry, they were killing whales to learn about them.”

Now, Ocean Alliance is hoping to launch a new method: collecting whale snot.

Kerr is calling it the “next generation” of data gathering—appropriate, as Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart is backing a new Kickstarter campaign to help Ocean Alliance raise money to use drones to noninvasively study whales. Nicknamed Snotbots, the drones will hover above whales and wait for them to exhale out their blowholes—emitting data-rich mucus in the process.

Then, before the snot hits the drone blades, attached surgical sponges, tubes, or cups will collect it for analysis.

Kerr first started thinking about gathering whale snot when his three-year-old daughter was drenched in it 15 years ago.

“We were in Baja California looking at gray whales…and a whale exhaled in her face. She was not very happy, and she cried. But one thing I realized was that she stunk. The saltwater didn’t stink. I realized then—there’s a lot of data here that this whale is blowing out,” Kerr said.

Ickiness aside, mucus is a rich source of biological information. Even a small sample can reveal DNA data, hormone levels, stress levels, virus and bacteria loads, and environmental toxins. As humans continue to encroach on the natural habitats of whales worldwide, tracking this kind of information is crucial.

Drones are also far less intrusive than existing methodologies, because they don’t directly interact with the whales. This leads to more accurate readings, Kerr said.

“The act of collecting the data often changes the data—the example I use is filming a group of schoolkids,” he said. “You bring a camera out in a classroom, and their behavior changes totally.”

(Photo: Ocean Alliance)

Unlike current procedures, which require scientists to get very close to the whales, drones are undetectable and won’t cause the animals any extra stress.

Snotbots have already been successfully built through a partnership between Ocean Alliance and Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. Tested using Snotshot—a custom-built floating blowhole simulator—they’re ready to be used in the field, according to Kerr.

If the team can raise $225,000 before the Kickstarter campaign closes on Aug. 25, Ocean Alliance will send the drones to Patagonia, the Sea of Cortez off Mexico, and the Frederick Sound in Alaska to study three different types of whales.

Over time, Kerr hopes the technology is used to study other ocean wildlife—and wildlife in general.

“If we can get drones out there and people collecting data, we’d have volumes of data that could be posted online,” he said. “You’ll have scientific groups collaborating all over the world.”