Rick Robinson

Nov 14th 2017

Wildlife Tracking Drones Follow the Whale-road


The old Norse sagas called the sea the whale-road, paying respect to those immense creatures that even Vikings were in awe of. And with good reason: Few things in nature are more spectacular than 150 tons of blue whale breaching — that is, throwing itself into the air to take a good deep breath before plunging back into the sea.

And, thanks to a new generation of drones modified for wildlife tracking, researchers are now able to get close-up views of breaching whales, views that would have been unobtainable a few years ago. They are even able to take breath samples, allowing them to assess whales’ health and study the effects that environmental impacts have on them.

Inelegant Name, Elegant Technology

According to NBC News, the drone technology that is transforming whale research goes by the name “Snotbot.” Yes, scientists are known for a sense of humor. But if you can get past the name, the idea is awesome.

When whales surface and let out their breath, it creates a cloud of spray and fog — hence the call of 19th-century New England whalers: “Thar she blows! This cloud of exhaled whale breath contains “a biological treasure trove of mammalian DNA, microbiome, stress and pregnancy hormones,” NBC News explained.

Researchers formerly had no way of capturing this wealth of biological information, but the drone makes it practical and even makes it seem easy. The news source noted that a petri dish is mounted on the underside of the drone. And when the drone flies into the spray and moisture of the whale’s “blow,” the downwash of the rotors blows some of this material into the petri dish, hence the name Snotbot.

The method not only allows scientists to gather vital biological information, it does so without disturbing the whale or affecting the information the researchers want to gather. Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, explained to NBC News that the whale believes the drone is a bird, which is nothing a whale needs to be concerned about.

Patient and Unobtrusive

Whales may be the biggest game that wildlife tracking drones are trailing, but they’re not alone. According to Quartz, drone technology is revolutionizing wildlife research.

The two greatest challenges facing wildlife researchers have always been time and obtrusiveness. Wild animals live on their own schedules, and tracking any animal over days and weeks calls for incredible patience. Drones have it in spades because they are capable of operating autonomously or semi-autonomously and do not have to be constantly “flown” by a human operator.

And because drones are relatively small and quiet, they are less disruptive to their surroundings, including the animals being studied. Whether it is studying the breath of whales or the private lives of polar bears, drones can observe without intruding.

Northrop Grumman, long a leader in autonomous vehicle technology, has taken a hands-on role in bringing drone capabilities to wildlife tracking and research. For example, in the Polar Eye competition, Northrop Grumman volunteer teams worked with the San Diego Zoo to develop a drone specifically tailored to track and observe polar bears unobtrusively in their native Arctic habitat.

Through arctic vastness, along the whale-road and in a hundred other environments, drones are playing a growing role in giving us a quiet, close-up view of the living natural world that surrounds us.