Snot-filled whale research takes flight

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 04, 2015 7:05 AM

By Ben Gruber

Gloucester, Mass. (Reuters) - Snotbot is a drone whose name describes it perfectly, it's a robot that collects snot, specifically whale snot.

Up until now, gathering samples for whale research involved shooting darts that penetrated the body. But Iain Kerr says there's a cheaper, more efficient way to study the large mammals. Instead of shooting darts at a whale for biopsy samples, a whale can unknowingly shoot snot at a drone. 

"We believe that whale snot or exhaled breath condensate is going to be the golden egg of data from a whale. The idea here is that we can go and collect physical data - DNA, viruses, bacteria, pregnancy hormones, stress hormones, without the whale knowing," said Kerr the CEO of Ocean Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to whale conservation based out of Gloucester, Massachusetts in the United States.  

After successfully raising more than $230,000 (USD) on Kickstarter, Kerr plans to deploy a Snotbot army for the first time to study Right Whales off the coast Argentina.

For now, Kerr is perfecting his drone flying skills. His team built this artificial whale blowhole system called Snotshot.      

"When I get above the whale at about 12 feet I will fly over the blowhole tilt the camera down and I will be looking at the blowhole and you will see the snot coming up on the lens," he said. 

The researchers are still prototyping different snot collectors that attach to the drones.

"One is just a simple high capacity sponge that is very resistant to releasing its load. So it's a high capacity sponge and remember we are not flying through and catching some snot, we are hovering and its blowing, and its blowing, and its blowing," Kerr added. 

With every blow, more data-rich snot is collected. That data, says Kerr, is more important than ever. Climate change, commercial whaling, and acoustic bleaching are just some of the dangers whales now face.

He says this technology will help researchers better protect them - one snot-filled robot at a time.