Whale conservationists seek backers on Kickstarter for snot-harvesting drone

140801-EM-OTG-SnotBot-IMG_0202[9][4]

The robots may be coming for our jobs, but first they will fly solo into a geyser of warm whale snot. For science.

These remote-controlled “snot bots” are designed by students at the Olin College of Engineering, and backed by conservationists and whale biologists at the Gloucester research nonprofit Ocean Alliance. This week, the group launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for robot-assisted whale studies in three parts of the world.

“The whole idea of these drones is that we can use them to collect data without the whales even knowing,” said Iain Kerr, the chief executive of Ocean Alliance.

Icky or not, the whale “blow” that’s expelled when an animal surfaces to take in a lungful of air, is a goldmine for biologists studying the health of the mammals. From the mixture of mucus, water, and tissue particles researchers can measure stress hormones, pregnancy hormones, detect viruses, gather material for DNA analysis, and more.

Considering the current practice involves riding alongside surfacing animals in boats, and dangling a 10-foot pole above their heads, the idea is that a hovering robot silently following a whale is more efficient.

Not convinced? Let Sir Patrick Stewart explain. The actor, who is a personal friend of Ocean Alliance founder and whale biologist Roger Payne, made an appearance in the video that the team posted on Kickstarter.

“We named the yellow robot Sunny after [Stewart’s] wife,” said Andrew Bennett, the Olin professor who led the group of students who built the drones. “We figured we owed him.”

140803-EM-OTG-DolphinDay-IMG_7503[9][4]A team from Olin built a robot to create fake whale spout to test their drone. (Photo courtesy Ocean Alliance.)

On the Kickstarter page, $5 can get you some “good karma”; for $250, you can get your name on a Snot Bot drone. Contributors of $10,000 are invited to join the expedition in Alaska or Mexico.

To protect the robot from the ocean spray (and snot wash), the team found a way to cover the electronic parts in a light, plastic shell.

“Sea water and electronics really don’t like each other,” said Bennett.

Then, a sponge-like material typically used in hospitals to sop up biological fluids like blood are strapped to the drone and soak up the samples.

DCIM101GOPROIf the drones fly 10 feet overhead, they can collect samples without stressing out the whales, the group claims. (Photo courtesy Ocean Alliance.)

It may come as little surprise that following whales with robots requires permissions from federal agencies, so the group has sent out requests to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, who must approve (or exempt) any flights that are not hobbyist flights. For now, they’re still waiting for an official sign-off.

In the meantime, the team has been testing the drones with a floating robot that shoots out a stream of water to mimic the stream from exhaling whales.

If all goes well, three trips are planned for later this year and next year. “We are 100 percent sure we can actually collect the snot,” Kerr said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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