Scientist uses drones to count whales

Wayne Perryman, leader at the Cetacean Health and Life History Program, holds a hexacopter. Photo courtesy of Wayne Perryman.
Wayne Perryman, leader at the Cetacean Health and Life History Program, holds a hexacopter. Photo courtesy of Wayne Perryman.

Wayne Perryman has spent the past decade developing aerial photographic techniques to count marine mammals. About four years ago, Perryman pick up a new technology – a drone — to better execute his work.

These days, it’s not just video he’s gathering, but whale snot.

“We’re going to build a hexacopter, attach a vacuum to it and fly it over a whale,” he said. “In the breath of a whale are little bits of cells and hormones, and we can look at that composition of air to see what it’s eating, if it’s male or female, or if it’s pregnant.”

With the vacuum bottle, Perryman will be able to remotely send a signal to open up the cover of the bottle when the whale blows up air and close it up again to collect the snot.

I got the pleasure of doing a Q&A with Perryman on his project – a different sort of whale watching. Enjoy!

Drone Girl: How does unmanned aircraft technology benefit your work?
Wayne Perryman: You just can’t get manned aircraft everywhere in the world, and planes are just too expensive. These are really just flying cameras, and they’re amazingly stable.

DG: Why are you using this aircraft to count animals?
WP: You photograph them from the air because humans are lousy at estimating them in groups. From our photos, you can measure their size and shape to get a feeling of their condition.

DG: How did you discover unmanned aircraft?
WP: It was something that came up because I was doing so much aerial photography. I went to the conventions to look at all these different kinds of drones. We looked at fixed wings, but we really fell in love with the little multi-engine copters because they give you the ability to hover and launch from almost everywhere.

DG: Since you do so much marine work, do you launch the drones from boats?

WP: Generally no, because we have to calibrate the accelerometers and gyros. When you’re out on a boat, it’s never motionless. The platforms we use right now are primarily shore-launched.

DG: Are you certified to fly?
WP: Yes, we have to get a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA. It means our pilots have to go through a more rigorous set of requirements. The FAA decided that even though we fly these little tiny things, we still have to go to ground-school and pass a physical. We have two FAA certified drone pilots and anticipate a total of six certified pilots six months from now. We do fly outside of National Airspace, which is why we like working in the Antarctic. That makes it a lot easier for us. It’s a great place to work and we’re doing really well there.

DG: How do your coworkers respond to using drones in science?
WP: The response is very positive. We’re so accustomed to asking questions and thinking. We protect the species, so you have to come up with creative ways of study. Aerial study is one of those ways, and it’s a way to do it inexpensively. If we can train scientists to fly these, which we have successfully, then it just becomes another tool, like a pair of boots.

  • Name: Wayne Perryman

  • Job: Leader at the NOAA’s Cetacean Health and Life History Program

  • Location: La Jolla, CA
  • Some places they’ve sent drones: New Zealand, Alaska, Antarctica

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