Tue. Jan 21st, 2020

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What is a SnotBot?

3 min read
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Tens of thousands of whales are killed or injured every year as a direct or indirect result of human activities. The health of ocean ecosystems is tied directly to the health of whales. If we continue to lose whales, the results will be disastrous not just for the oceans, but for our entire planet.

We need better technology to understand and document our impact on whales and their habitat. And we need tools that don’t further harm or harass them. And, most importantly, we need YOUR help.

Healthy oceans are critical to humanity’s survival. By supporting SnotBot, you are leaving a legacy for future generations and ultimately helping to preserve Planet Ocean.

We need your help to fund the purchase and construction of new drones, expeditions into the field to collect samples, and data analysis and dissemination. By funding this work you are supporting the development of a new data collection tool that will be easily replicable by others as well as the collection of critical data that is of benefit to whales and ultimately humanity.

Snotbots are custom-built drones created in partnership between Ocean Alliance and Olin College of Engineering. They hover in the air above a surfacing whale and collect the blow (or snot) exhaled from its lungs. Snotbot then returns that sample back to researchers a significant distance away.

Here is an extended interview with Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr and Sir Patrick Stewart about Snotbot. With your help we can get it into the field where it matters!

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DJI Inspire 2 SnotBot capturing a whale’s blow off Gabon West Africa

Snot? Why snot?

Having a lung lining sample is crucial. With it we can see virus and bacteria loads, analyze DNA, and look for environmental toxins that have been absorbed into the whale’s system. Perhaps most importantly, we can test for levels of hormones, which gives us information on the reproductive cycles and stress levels of these creatures as they are increasingly impacted by human activity in their natural habitats.

In the “BS” era of data collection (Before Snotbot), the standard way of getting a data sample of a whale (living outside captivity) involved chasing an extremely acoustically sensitive mammal with a loud motorboat and subsequently shooting it with a sampling dart from a crossbow. 

Imagine if everything your doctor knew about your health came from chasing you around the room with a large needle while blowing an air-horn.The chart would say something like, “elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking.” It’s inaccurate. This is what we believe is going on with some of the current whale data due to the invasive nature of previous sampling methods, and with Snotbot we mean to correct it with a clearer picture of whales that are undisturbed.

By using Snotbots, the whale never knows the data is being collected. The custom-built drones fly well above the surface of the water and into the blow, the subjects are never touched or approached closely. 

Ideally, whale researchers should be positioned about half a mile away from their subjects, giving the whales plenty of room to go about their business. Dozens of technological hurdles had to be overcome in order to make the drones capable of collecting a physical sample at this distance in an uncontrolled marine environment. 

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