article / 25 February 2016

SnotBots: Can drones transform whale conservation?

By flying through a whale's spray, a SnotBot can collect samples of mucus and DNA which researchers are hoping will offer insights into whales' stress levels. After a successful Kickstart campaign, Ocean Alliance has begun deploying SnotBot drones for the first time to monitor whales in Patagonia. In this interview, Iain Kerr discusses the SnotBot project and offers insights into the challenges of using drones for conservation. 

Iain Kerr is the chief executive officer of Ocean Alliance, which seeks to conserve whales and oceans through research and education. Recently, the group began using small unmanned aircraft to study the exhaled breath condensate from whales without bothering them, an effort known as SnotBot. The alliance used actor Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame to help with a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch SnotBot.


Q: Could you describe the type of work that Snotbot was able to do on your recent trip to Patagonia?

A: We used Snotbot to collect physical, biological samples from whales without the whales knowing. Currently, the act of collecting biological samples from whales necessitates interacting with the animal at some level, i.e., a close approach by a boat or taking a biopsy, which, if you are tying to collect data on what stresses a whale, could change the data. So we used a Snotbot to collect whale snot or exhaled breath condensate — this snot contains DNA, micro biomes (viruses and bacteria), along with pregnancy and stress hormones. We also used a calibrated camera to collect photogrammetry data. We would fly Snotbot approximately 12 feet over a whale, tilt our camera down so as to be able to see our snot collection device and the whale blowhole, hover over the blow hole, and wait for the blow. Snotbot was hand launched and recovered from a small inflatable.

Q: How did you first get the idea to use unmanned aircraft for your work?

A: We have to be innovative for most of our research programs. There is no whale research aisle at Home Depot, so we are always looking to adapt and modify current and emerging technologies to meet our needs. I have been an RC hobbyist for over a decade, so the idea of using these machines has long been on my mind. I have personally biopsied over 100 whales in the last few years, so I know better than most that it is not easy to get within 100 feet of a whale with a boat, and so often the whale would dive when we were 200-plus feet away. Necessity definitely drove invention here. With the expanding availability of electric engines, batteries, and a diversity of more and more advanced parts, I saw the opportunity to bring my job and my hobby together for the benefit of the wild world.


Q: What criteria did you use to select your drones?

A: This is a tough question, because we are still developing our criteria as we get to better understand the machines and the mission. We have many of the same needs as any flier or photographer: a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes flight time, gyrostabilized drone and FPV [first-person view], full data. You would think that we would want a waterproof drone, but to date all of the waterproof drones [we] have built or bought have been very heavy, which shortens flight time or increases downdraft. Downdraft could disturb the whale. We have tried both hexa- and quadcopters and, for now, are working with fairly affordable drones that we buy off the shelf and modify, with the idea that if we lose one, the program does not go bankrupt.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced using drones in such a remote location?

A: First of all, permitting. When you are dealing with an endangered species in a remote location with a new technology, it is an uphill battle. We are used to working at sea, where you can’t just run into a store if you forget something, so we brought a lot of parts, tools and our own MacGyver — John Graham. We took over 16 bags and a lot of batteries, which we hand-carried with inspections at every opportunity. In total we took four drones to Argentina: two Yuneec Typhoons, one Yuneec Tornado and an APH 22 belonging to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. One of the big surprises for us was the lack of Internet connectivity. The nearest hotspot was over two hours from our camp. We are so used to just checking something out online or downloading a protocol that this was a real challenge.

Q: What will the data that you are collecting able to tell you that would be hard to find or attain without the use of unmanned aircraft?

A: All of the data we are collecting is a first and is unique to our collection platform, that is hovering above a whale for 15 minutes making hardly any sound or disturbance. That said, the jewel in this crown was the collection of stress hormones. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that the act of collecting data can change the data. Prior to our use of drones, I don’t think that it was possible to collect stress hormone data from live, free-ranging whales without causing them some stress.

Q: What are the most surprising findings that Snotbot has helped you and your team to find?

A: We are still in the data analysis phase, so we will have to return to this question at a later date. One of the most profound experiences we had was watching a mother and her calf interact for about 20 minutes while hovering and filming above them. Had the mother been aware of the drone, I am sure we would not have seen this private life of whales, dare I say, intimate moment. While we are physical data-collection focused, observing animals’ behavior in the wild on their own terms is also incredibly valuable.

Q: What other types of projects does Ocean Alliance hope to pursue in the future using UAS?

A: We see many, from using FLIR [forward-looking infrared] to track animals at night and perhaps determine the severity of infections of wounds, to supporting whale disentanglement efforts, collecting toxicology data and of course observing animal behavior. As smaller sensors are developed, we are interested in measuring micro-plastics in the water column and other environmental pollutants. Funding permitting, we hope to build a fixed-wing drone to help us find animals and perhaps monitor potential poaching situations.

Q:  What are some of the shortcomings of drone use for your work that you’d like to see addressed?

A: Certainly, extending flight time is priority one. We have also had some latency issues with our FPV. From a wildlife perspective, it would also be nice to have quieter drones, quieter props and more flexible payload attachment points. I do believe that because of the general interest in this technology, there are people out there today solving problems that will facilitate our work that we have not even thought of. Last but not least, it is also important to have these tools at a price point that they can be used by more people worldwide.

Q: What advice would you give other groups such as yours that might be thinking about using unmanned aircraft in their work?

A: Do as much research as possible. There are a lot of amazing people out there who might have already developed the tools that you need. Contact anyone you think might be able to help you. We have been very lucky to have the students from Olin College of Engineering helping us here. Please adhere to all local regulations, and don’t break the law. I have seen a number of whale videos that are totally illegal. Right now, our principle challenge is raising the funds to develop and test these new tools — collaborate and innovate.


Ocean Alliance partnered with Sir Patrick Stewart to launch a succerssful kickstarter campaign to get the SnotBot project off the ground. The project was supported by 1,739 backers who pledged $229,819 to help bring this project to life. The Kickstarter video is by Stephanie Cornell

About the Author

This article first appeared on the Increasing Human Potential drones blog and was republished with permission. Increasing Human Potential is sponsored by The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

The Unmanned Unplugged feature at Increasing Human Potential brings readers stories about the innovative ways unmanned systems are being used today directly from the people putting this technology to use. Unmanned Unplugged features experts from the United States, and around the world, to inform you of the endless possibilities that unmanned systems hold in store. Visit the site to learn more about the ways that this technology is being used every day to improve our lives.

All images used in this article are the property of SnotBot and Ocean Alliance. 

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