By A.J. McCarthy
Drones are so hot right now. From peeking inside the mouth of an active volcano to recreating Tatooine pod races, unmanned aerial vehicles are in, and their utility (thankfully) extends far beyond the battlefield. For proof of this, look no further than the Vancouver Aquarium’s use of a custom-built hexacopter to track and monitor its local orca population, shown in the video above.
The first-of-its-kind study—which was a team effort of the aquarium’s Lance Barrett-Lennard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers Holly Fearnbach, John Durban, and Wayne Perryman—was put together to determine the impact of salmon fisheries on the resident orca population. Research showing a correlation between poor salmon years and spikes in orca deaths indicated that the connection was strong, but there was no way to know for sure until the team had a clearer idea of the whales’ exact feeding habits and preferred salmon-hunting locales.
Additionally, orca deaths were too black-and-white a measuring stick to create long-term strategies for reviving the dwindling whale population. As Barrett-Lennard says in his post about the study, “John [Durban] and I felt that a more sensitive measure of food stress—thinness rather than starvation—was needed, so that the role of prey availability could be better understood and salmon fisheries could be managed with the needs of killer whales in mind.”
Taking all of this into account, the team put their heads together with Don Leroi of Aerial Imaging Solutions—who had already been developing a UAV for NOAA at the time—and out came Mobly, their “steady, stable, and quiet” hexacopter. With the drone in tow, Barrett-Lenard and Co. took to the water, where they were able to capture two weeks of unbelievable footage of orcas in their natural—and undisturbed, thanks to Mobly—habitat.
The result? Using a formula developed by Durban for determining whale length and dorsal fin height, they were able to confirm that the orcas in the area were generally “robust” (unsurprisingly—it’d been a good season for Chinook salmon). Perhaps more importantly, Mobly proved its worth as a research tool. As Barrett-Lenard said: “We are convinced now that Mobly—or one of his cousins—will be an invaluable part of our research program for years to come, as we focus on recovering resident killer whale populations by, among other things, ensuring they have enough to eat.”
Well done, Mobly. Head on over to the Aquarium’s blog for a more in-depth look at the study.