How a Snotbot Drone Could Save Endangered Whales

Drones. For many people, the word conjures up visions of annoying unmanned aerial vehicles preventing firefighters from doing their jobs or potentially colliding with commercial jets. They’ve been banned from national parks, and a new study discovered that drones really stress out bears.

But, believe it or not, drones aren’t all bad, and can actually help animals and wildlife. In fact, we may one day have drones to thank for saving endangered whales.

That’s right: A small, quiet, waterproof drone equipped with tubes could hover over a surfaced whale’s blowhole, collecting samples that contain stress hormone levels, viruses, bacteria, DNA, environmental toxins and other important information.

“When you go to the doctor, they take blood. You can’t go up and take a blood sample from a whale,” Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO of the nonprofit conservation organization Ocean Alliance, told the Boston Globe. “But the next best thing to the blood is the mucus—snot—or exhaled breath condensate that is coming out of the lungs.”

To collect those samples, Kerr worked with the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., to develop a drone he calls the Snotbot.

“It really is a priceless package that the whales are sending to us—DNA, hormones, is it male, is it female, is it pregnant, is it lactating?” Kerr told WCVB. “One of the things we’re most interested in, though, is what stresses a whale, because we cannot get inside the mind of a whale.”

To raise money to build Snotbots as well as to pay for expeditions and research, Ocean Alliance launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of reaching $225,000 by August 25. With little time left, less than half of that amount has been pledged.

In a video on the Kickstarter page, Kerr tells actor and Snotbot supporter Patrick Stewart that B.S. (before Snotbot), samples from whales have had to be collected by chasing them in noisy motorboats and using crossbows to shoot them with sampling darts.

“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,” Kerr says. “The chart would say something like, ‘Elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking.’ It’s inaccurate.”

The Snotbot, on the other hand, is not intrusive and hopefully not so stressful for whales (unless, like bears, they don’t care for a drone hovering overhead).

The maiden voyage of the Snotbot is set for September in South America’s Peninsular Valdez Patagonia. Samples will be collected from the southern right whale, which is one of the world’s most endangered great whales.

Future expeditions include the Sea of Cortez in Baja California to collect samples from sperm whales, and then it will head north to collect snot from the Alaska humpback whale in Frederick Sound.

But what about National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulations that require all aircraft to keep a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet above whales? Per Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, drones are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet. To successfully collect a sample, the Snotbot must hover no more than 12 feet above the whale.

Kerr told the Boston Globe those regulations have not been updated for drone technology. He has already received permission from Argentina to fly the Snotbot there, and he’s applied for certification from the FAA and a permit from NOAA, which he expects to receive by the end of the year.

“We’ve got snot, we’ve got celebrity, we’ve got technology,” Kerr told the Boston Globe. “And we’ve got empowering and effecting change.”

It will be interesting to see how whales react to the Snotbot. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, it’s illegal to harass any marine mammal, which includes any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance that could injure or disturb it.

Hopefully whales won’t be bothered being pursued by the Snotbot. If that’s the case, this drone with the silly name could revolutionize research.

Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library

78 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jennifer H.
Jennifer H2 years ago

I agree with Gayle J. Drones need to be banned to the general public. Being used for things like this, as long as it is less stressful on the whales/wildlife is acceptable. But having the general public flying the dumb things for their entertainment is irresponsible.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago

nice!

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thanks

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Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey2 years ago

Sounds like a good idea

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Lori Hone
Lori Hone2 years ago

There are good uses for drones, and this is one of the best

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Jo S.
Jo S2 years ago

I agree completely with Natasha!
Thanks Laura.

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Sherri S.
Sherri S2 years ago

Good to see that advanced technology can be used in a positive way. Anything to help the animals and reduced their stress levels is good news to me.

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Natasha Salgado
Past Member 2 years ago

Exactly what drones should be used 4. Drones were made 4 nabbing poachers illegal loggers lil more after that. It's so frustrating to see how lil thy're being used 4 these 2 purposes which are both a crisis.

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Baba N.
Past Member 2 years ago

Gayle J, why you say ; They definitely need to be out of the amateurs' hands since they're only using them for their own fun and amusement."
They do not harm if the are used for they're own amusement ,,,, a friend of mine has one and we are all ok with it,,, he takes the drone out once in a while and is " cruising around just for fun xxx


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