Here’s how DJI’s Snotbot drone works to research whales

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Courtesy DJI

The concept of a “Snotbot” has been one of my favorite uses of a drone to date ever since I learned how NOAA’s Wayne Perryman was using drones to collect whale snot back in August of 2013.

For years now, researchers have been mounting collection devices on drones and flying them over whales as they blow fluid in the air, allowing scientists to collect better samples at less risk and lower cost without the whale even noticing.

DJI today released a video featuring Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, who explains how it all works.

“We can go out and in one day collect 20 samples,” he said. “It would take me a week with a 93-foot boat with 12 people to do that.”

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Courtesy DJI

Ocean Alliance researchers so far have flown 80 missions over blue, grey and humpback whales in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez under a research permit from the University of La Paz., collecting samples of lung linings that allow them to analyze DNA, detect viruses and bacteria, search for toxins, and measure hormone levels that are affected by reproductive cycles and stress levels.

Traditional techniques for studying whales require a motorboat to chase them so they can be stung by a research dart, according to DJI. Ocean Alliance used Inspire 1 and Phantom drones controlled by researchers on boats up to half a mile away, reducing stress on the animals while capturing larger samples from more whales.

“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,” Kerr said.

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