NOAA turns to drones for Northern Atlantic right whale research

Drones and wildlife don't always mix -- people using their off-the-shelf drones to capture images of animals can harass and cause stress to the wildlife -- but scientists and environmental groups have found numerous ways to use the technology for good. From watching out for poachers to conducting field studies, drones have become one of the best tools for monitoring wildlife.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken note, using the technology on various studies, and is now training their researchers to use a variety of drones out in the field. Two marine mammal researchers recently became certified NOAA unmanned aerial system (UAS) pilots and carried out a three-day study of critically-endangered North Atlantic right whales.

On a boat in Cape Cod Bay they launched a research hexacopter for several flights a day, each lasting 15 to 20 minutes. During the flights, the drones captured images to use for identification of individual whales and photogrammetry studies which allow them to take body measurements from the photos.

The researchers captured hundreds of images of mother and calf pairs and individual whales.

“We are excited about aerial images of the whales from this enhanced perspective,” said Lisa Conger, one of the marine mammal researchers, along with Elizabeth Josephson, that carried out the project. “This technology opens up a lot of possibilities for whale researchers. Length and girth ratios will provide indications about health, and could serve as a long-term method of monitoring health. It could also help determine calf growth rates and contribute to behavioral studies.”

The drones join a suite of photography techniques that NOAA uses for research. Scientists often go out on boats and use conventional cameras to take photographs and the hexacopters will now go on those outings to capture aerial photos. NOAA also uses airplanes to take aerial photographs from much higher in the sky, which captures images of entire coastlines and offshore areas at once.

NOAA is using drones to enhance other marine animal initiatives like studying gray seal pupping, tuna and menhaden populations and sea turtle movements.

The drone images have already played a part in understanding the threats to Northern Atlantic right whales. Researchers photographed and identified a mother-calf pair in Cape Cod Bay that had also been photographed during calving studies off the coast of Florida and Georgia in the winter. A few weeks later, that calf was struck by boat propellers and killed -- the photographs allowed the researchers to identify it as the same calf. The photographs let the researchers follow the first few months of that calf's life, healthy and growing, until the boat strike.

There are fewer than 500 North Atlantic right whales remaining because of threats like boat strikes, fishing gear entanglement, climate change, noise and more. The drone surveys will allow researchers to see where and when the whales are most impacted by these threats and hopefully lead to better protections for the animals.

Tags: Gadgets | Oceans | Technology

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