Drones Help Scientists Save Entangled Whales

Public Domain. NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

Discarded and lost gear from fishing boats has posed a threat to whales for generations. Loose nets and ropes can wrap around the giant mammals and impair their ability to swim and eat, causing them to starve or drown. For decades, NOAA and its volunteers have worked to free entangled whales with knives on long poles, but this process is both dangerous and time consuming.

Working to free a 45-foot, 40-ton animal is risky -- a volunteer was killed just last year when struck by an entangled whale's tail -- but a new program between the administration's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and non-profit Oceans Unmanned is using drones to make the process more efficient and safe for all involved.

“In the past, we had to get close to the whales at least three times,” said Oceans Unmanned founder Matt Pickett. “Once to figure out where the animal was entangled, once to cut them free and once to make sure the job was done right and nothing was left behind.”

Those three encounters were each a chance for injury, but with the drones, the two steps to assess the entanglement and then the success of the rescue can be done remotely leaving just one necessary close-up maneuver to free the whale. Having a way to inspect the whale aerially can also give a better view of the problem and arm the rescuers with a better plan to start with.

Called the freeFLY program, researchers are using remote-controlled quadcopters with cameras and accessories donated by DJI. Oceans Unmanned is training Maui-bases volunteers to operate the drones from small boat in support of the disentanglement teams. The volunteers receive lessons that meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements for flying drones and certify them for NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program permits to approach within 100 yards of a whale.

“It makes the entire process much safer for both the humans and the whales,” said Pickett.

In the past 30 years, NOAA has overseen the disentanglement of 1,300 whales. This new program could make those rescues far more efficient and less risky for the volunteers and the whales.