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How A Drone Called SnotBot Became a Game Changer in Whale Conservation

Image via OceanAlliance/Facebook

Reader beware: This article is snot for the faint of heart.

For whale biologists like Dr. Iain Kerr, it used to be a real mission to collect whale blubber. The fleshy tissue contained invaluable information, which for Dr. Kerr was necessary to monitor the health of whales. Obtaining a sample of the blubber meant chasing after whales through the ocean, trying to get within 30 or 40 feet of them—all while standing on the ship’s bow (front part of the ship)—and shooting modified darts at them.

But that all changed in 2010 when Dr. Kerr got a little too close to a particular whale he was chasing after.

“As we got close, its blowhole, which is akin to a nostril, sprayed all over us—and then the animal dived before we could get a sample. Enveloped in this cloud of stinky, horrible whale snot, I thought: Anything this stinky and horrible has to be productive. It turns out whale blow has some of the same molecules that flesh does. I began thinking about how to collect snot,” Dr. Kerr explains to Popular Science.

That experience inspired Dr. Kerr to develop a unique prototype to collect the nasally body fluid. Known as the SnotBot, the device was built in collaboration with Ocean Alliance, which Dr. Kerr is CEO of, and the Olin College of Engineering.

The SnotBot is a custom-built drone that hovers right over a whale, waits for the whale to surface, and then collects the whale blow that is exhaled from the lungs through the blowhole.

By analyzing the biological data that the SnotBot collects, Dr. Kerr can determine the sex of the whale through the DNA, along with the levels of microbiomes, pregnancy hormones, stress hormones and ketones.

To this day, SnotBot has been used to collect the essential whale data, helping to save the lives of whales in a stress-free manner.

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