A "Snotbot" that hovers over whale blow holes to capture key data from our world's biggest mammals. Does Dr. Iain Kerr have a job that's more fun than yours?

 

Thespian Patrick Stewart has joined the side of tech for the sake of humanity. More specifically, he's called for the support of Snotbot, a drone that helps us understand whales, that helps us understand the oceans, that ultimately helps us help humanity.

Dr. Iain Kerr is a leading scientist and current CEO of Ocean Alliance, an international organization devoted to whale research and ocean conservation, who has spent the past thirty years dedicated to understanding these marine mammals. Dr. Kerr is a firm believer that the future of humanity resides in the ocean. As he says: “we don’t live on planet earth, we live on planet ocean”. 

Snotbot is a custom-built drone that can hover over a whale’s blow hole and effectively and non-invasively collect the snot that a whale blows out which hosts a wealth of data including samples of stress and pregnancy hormones, genetic material, viruses, and bacteria. Ultimately this data will help researchers to gain a better understanding of whales and the health of the ocean, while decreasing research costs and increasing the scope of data one can collect while also making it more accessible to other researchers around the world.

Dr. Kerr has long been an avid flyer of model planes, but little did he know it would be his beloved hobby that would unknowingly inspire the Snotbot. When prompted for the origin of Snotbot, Dr. Kerr shared the amusing anecdote of a sailing trip with his two and a half year old daughter on the Saint Ignacio lagoon when a nearby whale blew out a large bit of “snot” that drenched his daughter, causing her to cry. The residue left his daughter’s clothes smelling for weeks, despite numerous attempts to wash them, and the good doctor realized this pungent smell was important biological matter.

After pressing Dr. Kerr further, he realized another key factor in the Snotbot's development was his deciding to switch from flying fuel-powered model planes to battery-operated models as the former had left his lawn oddly spotted from the fuel residue (and annoyed his wife). It was this moment that would eventually lead to Snotbot: a battery operated machine (that enables a sterile collecting unit) that could collect key whale data.

 

Snotbot has gone through approximately 12 iterations as the students at Olin University and collaborating scientists continue to perform the research. Over the course of developing Snotbot, the cost and accessibility of drones has also dramatically diminished. Dr. Kerr currently purchases off-the-shelf drones that are then modified them for his expeditions. This accessiblility also serves Dr. Kerr’s overall goals to educate the greater science community and demonstrate the utility of drones for science.

Dr. Kerr views Ocean Alliance as a pathfinder. It’s not one of the biggest companies but it's been successful at discovering problems he hopes bigger companies with deeper pockets can hopefully help address. Dr. Kerr is initially interested in identifying the chronic, human-driven effects on whale populations around the world. Kerr suggests that identifying trends in the whale populace can lead to a better understanding of what is occurring in the ocean. However, whales are inherently a difficult species to study as they communicate through sound, and previous practices used for studying whales were invasive, often harmful and caused stress, leading to improper results. Dr. Kerr is excited by the opportunity of Snotbot to study whales without causing those stresses or interfering with their daily habits.

Ocean Alliance and Snotbot aim to develop and represent the innovative tools that can be replicated by others to gather data that can effect change without causing it, to explore how humans interact with marine mammals, and to inform legislative changes driven by citizens of science - like this team... and Patrick Stewart. 

To support Dr. Iain Kerr and the Ocean Alliance Snotbot project, please visit its Kickstarter page

by Anna-Nora Bernstein