Drones give whales a breathalyzer test

Photo by Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Acquired under National Marine Fisheries Service Permit 17355-01 and NOAA Class G flight authorization 2015-ESA-4-NOAA)

Drones give whales a breathalyzer test

Whales, like many cetaceans, are prone to respiratory tract infections, which can jeopardize already endangered populations. Assessing whales’ health, however, isn’t easy: Scientists hoping to measure bacteria and fungi in a whale’s “breath”—the moist air it shoots from its blowhole—need to get close enough to take a sample. Enter the whalecopter, a small, remote-controlled drone developed by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The drone—a six-propeller hexacopter—can both collect breath samples and take high-resolution photos of the whales from the air to assess general health and conditions such as fat level and skin lesions. In a test at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary last month, the whalecopter first hovered about 40 meters above 36 whales to take full-body photographs of the animals—and then zoomed in to just a few meters above sea level to fly through the whales’ spouts (shown) and collect breath samples. In all, the team collected 16 breath samples, which it will now analyze for microorganism assemblages. The researchers plan to go out again next winter to the Antarctic Peninsula to collect and compare breath samples from the same species, but in a relatively pristine environment.

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