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Drones are making whale research safer for whales and scientists

Author: Dr Vanessa Pirotta - Marine Bioligist

Twitter: @vanessapirotta | Instagram: @drvanessapirotta

Photo courtesy of Macquarie University

When you think of an application for drones what comes to mind? Pizza delivery? Lifesaving at your local beach?or this year’s birthday present?

Well believe it or not, drones are not just transforming the everyday but have helped advanced the way scientists learn more about whales.

Whales play important ecological roles in the marine environment. For example, they move nutrients around the ocean by feeding in one area and pooing in another. They also swim in the same water and breath the same air we do. This makes whales important study species of ocean health. Plus, whales are loved marine animals and are protected by many countries around the world.

Whales can sometimes be challenging for scientists to study. They are extremely big and due to their size can be dangerous to work around. To learn more about whale health scientists are now using emerging technologies such as drones to provide a remote check up of whale health. This is very exciting because in the past, we relied on whales that were hunted or those that had washed ashore (their health likely compromised). Scientist also moved to using long poles with collection devices held over whale blowholes but this is very invasive and can also be dangerous.

My team and I (Macquarie University and Heliguy Scientific) have developed custom built, waterproof drones to collect whale lung bacteria also known as whale snot. This contains health information such as bacteria, hormones and DNA. Our drones fly from a research boat (>200metres) over to a whales position and can collect whale snot using a petri dish. We can then use these samples to identify bacteria and viruses present in whale lungs. This can help us understand population health overtime.

Drones are removing the need for scientists to be close to whales to collect health information. This is much safer for both whales and scientists. In addition, these drones also provide an eye in the sky to watch whale behaviour, enabling us to watch whales from a whole new perspective.

Dr Vanessa Pirotta

Marine Biologist.


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