Practising drone flights

In August, I joined our UAV pilot Matt and friend and collaborator Michael Moore at Michael’s home near Cape Cod, to get familiar with the drone we will be using to collect photogrammetry data from the whales. The particular drone we will use is called the APH-22, and it is especially calibrated so that it can measure drone height above sea level and therefore accurately measure whale length and width (body condition) from above.

The APH22 at rest. Image: Michael Moore.

This type of drone has been used for photogrammetry before, and is the equipment of choice for NOAA’s marine mammal program who have used this system to study North Atlantic right whales, killer whales and humpback whales.

Piloting the drone is a job for at least two people. While the drone pilot is manning the controls, the second operator must carefully release the drone into the sky, keep a close eye on the drone’s base station and camera feed (so that they can identify exactly when to take pictures with the camera mounted on the drone, and when blow samples are collected from the whale), and catch the drone when it returns. This is no trivial task on the deck of a moving boat! So a helmet, visor and long-armed pair of Kevlar gloves are worn to keep the drone catcher safe from harm during this process. The field team also have to keep a careful lookout to see and avoid manned aircraft.

Jen and Matt practice drone catch and release. Image: Michael Moore.

Collecting whale blow is really useful for finding out how healthy they are, by studying the suite of bacteria (the ‘microbiome‘) in the samples we collect with DNA sequencing. This work will be led by Dr Amy Apprill at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After we collect these samples from the whales, they have to be stored at -80°C in order to remain fresh, which means we will be stashing a liquid Nitrogen storage drum on the deck of the boat, to keep everything very cold. Even sub-Antarctic waters don’t get that cold!

Inspire with Petrie dish
The DJI Inspire drone with a Petrie dish mounted to collect blow samples. Image: Michael Moore

Author: polarbiome

British Antarctic Survey research scientist. Principal Investigator EU BEST right whale SWIM project.