When you think of drone-giant DJI, the words “whale snot” do not usually leap to mind.
However, the Chinese UAV manufacturer is teaming up with Ocean Alliance to better study and help whales in Mexico – using snot.
The biological mission, known affectionately as Snotbot, deploys drones directly into the mucous spray whales expel as they surface. Researchers can then gather data and samples to study whale health and behavioral patterns. In the past, such research had to be done in a way that can cause stress to the aquatic mammals.
“The idea behind ‘Snotbot’ is to collect physical, biological data and video and photographs from a whale, without the whale knowing, and we needed a drone to collect that data,” said Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance. “We can observe intimate behavior without having a giant helicopter or an airplane, which is expensive and dangerous. This is going to give us a whole new perspective. We can help conserve this animal.”
The Snotbot mission has been an ongoing project for the Alliance over the past two years. In 2015, students at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. worked with OA to develop the first Snotbot drone prototype. Last year, OA teamed up with Sir Patrick Stewart, filming a video to demonstrate the value of Snotbot. Today, partnering with DJI will allow the Alliance to fly more missions using the latest drone technology.
“DJI is thrilled that our drones are helping benefit these majestic creatures by making it easier for scientists to study and protect them,” said Paul Pan, DJI’s Senior Product Manager. “Around the world, drone users are finding new and innovative uses for our aerial platforms, and ‘Snotbot’ is clearly one of the most dramatic examples of how low-cost aerial technology can improve science as well as business and recreation.”
The company has released a video depicting one of the 80 missions Ocean Alliance has completed with blue, gray and humpback whales in the Sea of Cortez under a research permit from the University of La Paz, Mexico. Drone flights allow the researchers to collect samples of lung linings, allowing them to analyze DNA, detect viruses and bacteria, search for toxins, and measure hormone levels that are affected by reproductive cycles and stress levels.