Whales in our oceans today face more threats than ever before. Chemical pollution, climate change, noise pollution, bycatch/entanglement in fishing gear, loss of prey species and ship strikes the prime antagonists in a long list of destructive, diversifying and intensifying pressures. If we are to save whales we need to better understand how these threats are impacting them. For this, we need more and better data.
We believe that drones can be the answer to this problem. Drones have extraordinary potential in the fields of whale research and conservation. Ocean Alliances Drones for Whale Research program has been running since 2012. The purpose of this program has been to explore and push the boundaries of this new research paradigm. As with many novel applications of new technologies, it can be some time before the most effective and efficient use of the technology is determined. Our objective with this program is to accelerate this learning stage in order that the benefits of these tools can more quickly be reaped by the science and conservation communities. The program has focused upon doing this in as cost-effective manner as possible, in order that more researchers around the world might benefit from our work determining what kinds of data these tools can collect and how to most effectively collect them.
Thus far we have focused on collecting respiratory samples from whales using a drone, under the banner name of SnotBot. As of February 2017, we have collected 139 respiratory samples from four species of whale in four different locations.
SnotBot is capable of collecting biological samples in a non-invasive manner (current evidence strongly indicates that drones are less invasive than the majority of traditional methods of collecting physical samples). We have also demonstrated the viability of these tools for collecting bio-acoustics data, night-time/lowlight footage, behavioral data, footage for bio-kinetics analysis, photogrammetry and photo-ID. To have a single, affordable tool which can collect such a wide variety of independently valuable data forms is, we think, extraordinary and potentially revolutionary.
The program has also proven the powerful potential these tools have in science communication, delivering extraordinary visuals of these animals in their environment whilst telling a story constituting a very real scientific adventure.
To collect samples from whales during our research expeditions to learn more about them and how they are being impacted by the various threats they face.
To develop a methodology and protocol which can be used globally to collect priceless data sets on whales.
To use this program as a tool of science communication: educating the public as to why whales are important and what we can all do to help protect them.