Saving the Whales with Drones: Ipswich High School Students Assist in Marine Research

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logo-31Every year, tens of thousands of whales are killed as a direct or indirect result of humans. Whales are injured or killed by ships, tangled in fishing nets, and purposefully killed by whalers. Their habitats are destroyed, they’re affected by rising sea temperatures, they’re sickened or killed by pollution. Humans have a lot to answer for in the declining number of whales, and thus a lot of work to do to stop the damage and bring these endangered species back to health.

Saving the whales – or any species – begins with research into how they’re being affected by numerous factors. Unfortunately, in the case of whales in particular, gathering much-needed information about them often stresses them even further. Typically, researchers have shot sampling darts into whales from boats, then retrieving them and analyzing the samples for several factors: toxins, viruses and bacteria, and hormones, which reveal information about stress levels and reproductive cycles.

3740ecf50c8ddb66c381c4b6bc6e7aef_originalWhales are extremely sensitive creatures, however, and they’re particularly sensitive to sound, meaning that being chased down with a motorboat causes them a great deal of stress, which skews the hormonal samples collected by the scientists in the boat. Conservation organization Ocean Alliance has come up with a better method – drones.

The delightfully named Snotbot, which was created by Ocean Alliance in partnership with Olin College of Engineering, is a drone that hovers above a whale as it surfaces and sprays water out of its blowhole. The drone collects the water, which also contains material from the lining of the lungs, and returns to the researchers stationed on a boat a safe distance away. The whale never even realizes that it’s been approached.

The solution hasn’t been perfect, though, according to Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance. It’s also important for the scientists to know the exact distance between the drone and the whale as it collects the sample, and while most drones have altimeters that measure their height, the readings generally aren’t accurate enough.

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Iain Kerr tests a drone with help from Olin College students.

“Currently we have an observer on our ship observing the drone shouting out his/her guess of its height as I pilot the drone into place,” said Kerr. “Not the ideal situation.”

Help came in the form of students from Ipswich High School – specifically, their robotics team. The team, which consists of more than 25 students in grades 8-12, works with adult mentors and supervisors to design and build robots for competition with other teams across the state of Massachusetts and beyond. When they heard about the issue Ocean Alliance was having, they saw an opportunity for a project.

Kerr was thrilled when the team met with him, and he explained his needs; he wanted his drone to be able to consistently and accurately report its altitude to its pilot.

“There’s a sweet spot of 10 to 12 feet above the whale where we collect the most robust samples,” he said. “Navigating to that height and holding it is tricky.”

The team decided to go with laser altimeter technology, the most accurate measuring method available. They then needed to devise a way for the drone to clearly and constantly transmit its height to its pilot.

“We used radio controlled microcontroller boards to send the measurements wirelessly,” said team member Peyton Fitzgerald. “We added a sound board that listens to the microcontroller and converts the height measurements to audio. It constantly reports the altitude into the pilot’s headphones.”

whale

A lot of programming work was needed, along with electrical wiring and soldering. To hold all of the components together and protect them from the elements, they designed and 3D printed two casings.

“We used computer-aided design (CAD) tools for design and 3D printer technology to create the actual casings. One casing attaches the altimeter and microcontroller to the drone. The other clips onto the pilot’s belt and houses a microcontroller and sound board,” said Annabelle Platt, mechanical lead on the robotics team.

It’s a convenient, and highly effective, hands-free solution that allows the pilot to focus on maneuvering the drone while the altitude is reported into his or her earphones.

“These burgeoning engineers solved a real-life problem for Ocean Alliance, and hopefully learned while doing so,” said Kerr. “It’s fantastic that local high school kids can contribute to this project — we are over the moon.”

snotbotAdditional students working on the project include chief programmer Filip Kernan, project leader Roman Gadbois, Kendra Williams, George Gallagher and Pat Mattin. The adults supervising the team are Rick Gadbois and David Platt, but according to Platt, they only supervise and offer direction – all of the work is done by the students.

“They took the skills they are learning and had the desire to apply those skills to something real. And kids want something real,” said Ipswich High School Principal David Dalton. “I’m excited that they did it. As the principal, I want to see the kids do more of that.”

Discuss in the Save the Whales forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: North of Boston / Images: North of Boston/Ocean Alliance]
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