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Researchers say drones may be the saving grace of dolphins and whales

Their domain may be in the skies, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help those in the sea. A new application of drone technology seeks to aid the whale and dolphin populations of Hawai’i by creating a more accurate listing of the mammals’ pods. While the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in animal research is still in a relatively early stage, should this experiment prove successful, it could pave the way for further operations in the future.

“I believe that drones for conservation and research are akin to the invention of the microscope for cellular biology,” said Iain Kerr, the CEO of Ocean Alliance, a whale and ocean research organization. “If we truly want to understand what effects humanity is having on wildlife we need to study them in a non-invasive manner,” he added. “Today’s drones are the ultimate realization of non-invasive research.”

In the case of the dolphins and whales being studied in Hawai’i, a hexacopter drone is producing high quality images of the marine wildlife. The hexacopter drone is capable of carrying larger and better quality cameras than many others, and it’s also capable of withstanding rough ocean conditions like high winds and seas.

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Already, the insights gleaned from drone-produced photographs have helped scientists “catalog whale groups more accurately,” the Christian Science Monitor reports. Because these counts are needed to determine how healthy the whale population really is, drones are already making invaluable contributions to research.

And if nothing else, the drone are giving researchers some unique whale footage. “Never before have I seen anything like this,” Barbara Bollard-Breen, a geospatial science professor at Auckland University, told The Independent. “There is no way we would see so much detail from a boat-based survey.”

So while this may be the first time scientists are using drone technology in their work, it seems almost certain that it won’t be the last.