Drones are helping efforts to free whales from dangerous marine debris

Quadcopters and other remotely controlled flying machines are finding all kinds of amazing uses, well beyond just capturing stunning photos or helping filmmakers to secure some awesome aerial shots.

Take this recent ocean-based collaboration as an example. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary teamed up with Oceans Unmanned, whose goal is to protect oceans and coastal marine environments through the use of drones.

The focus of this particular partnership, highlighted in a video posted on YouTube this week, is to help disentangle whales around Hawaii from discarded fishing kit and other ocean debris that can injure or drown the mammal, or prevent it from feeding.

It’s dangerous work and the team has to approach the creatures, which may be in a great deal of distress, with extreme care.

NOAA’s Ed Lyman, who’s been helping whales for more than 25 years, has warmly welcomed drone technology into his work. He says the camera-equipped machines, which relay real-time footage to the rescue team, help his boats to “minimize approaches, give us a different view — an aerial view — of the gear and the animal’s condition … it reduces our risk, having that drone in the toolbox makes the whole procedure a much safer one.”

Lyman can thank Matt Pickett, a trained pilot and president of Oceans Unmanned, for the extra assistance offered by the eye in the sky. Picket launched the nonprofit company five years ago with the aim of bringing unmanned technology to ocean protection, using small drones launched from response boats or smaller support vessels.

“You can get a better look at the whales [and] figure out what’s going on, with less risk to both the responders and the whales,” Pickett said, adding that “using tech for environmental good is a really fantastic feeling,”

The video was produced by drone maker DJI as part of its Stories collection highlighting the various ways in which its machines are being used for positive purposes.

Drone rescue

Besides assisting whales in distress, drone technology is also being utilized right now — again in Hawaii — to help emergency response teams rescue residents from the lava flows from Kilauea volcano on the Big Island.

A number of drone experts also assisted with relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which caused widespread damage in Houston, Texas, in 2017.