Take flight with SnotBot for a new view of whales [video]

It’s hard to pin down a whale long enough to study it. Researcher Iain Kerr remembers thinking, “Man, there has got to be an easier way of doing this,” after yet another whale dove below his boat just before he could take a tissue sample from it.

So Kerr had a crazy idea. With help from college students and schoolchildren in his weekly robotics club in Massachusetts, he modified an inexpensive four-propeller drone to study whales. The drone would fly through whale breath, essentially whale snot, collecting a trove of data — whale DNA, hormones, bacteria and other chemicals.

But the drone needed a name. “SnotBot!” shouted a student.

The name stuck.

SnotBot takes to the skies

On the water, Kerr releases the drone and, using a computer, flies it over a whale. When the whale surfaces to breathe, “Holy moly — when you see that snot all over the camera lens, you know you’ve got the sample.”

Kerr put his students’ coding skills to work. They designed an audio feed that would constantly read SnotBot’s altitude — allowing the pilot to concentrate visually on the whales.

In the Sea of Cortez, a body of water surrounded by Mexico on three sides, Kerr’s hands shook as he guided SnotBot close to a massive blue whale. He couldn’t stop marveling at the enormity of the planet’s largest animal. “It is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done — and terrifying.”

New techniques

“I don’t think people have an idea yet how powerful this is,” Kerr said.

DNA in whale snot provides all sorts of genetic information. Hormones can indicate if an animal is stressed or calving. And bacteria can tell us what’s in a healthy whale’s gut.

SnotBot drone (State Dept./Linda D. Epstein)
SnotBot is a modified commercial drone. (State Dept./Linda D. Epstein)

SnotBot has studied right whales off Argentina and blue whales off Mexico. In a recent visit to humpback whales near Alaska, Kerr collected one snot sample every 18 minutes — doing in a day what could take weeks on an expensive research vessel.

With its nonintrusive technique, SnotBot has impressed scientists from around the world. “‘I didn’t know the whale did that — look how it’s moving its flukes!'” Kerr heard a researcher exclaim, referring to the two lobes of a whale’s tail.

Kerr, who is the chief executive of Ocean Alliance, said he hopes to open up SnotBot’s flights to citizen scientists, enabling anyone to experience whales up close.

Kerr said opportunities for citizen science are spouting up everywhere.

“If you think about it in the future — citizen science, telepresence — it’s sort of bringing humanity and different nations together. It’s exciting, it really is.”