Scientists to deploy ‘SnotBots’ to capture and analyze whale blow

Drones will soon be deployed over the ocean to help scientists study whales in an unusual way. Dubbed SnotBots, these custom-built, remote-controlled drones are designed to hover over pods of whales and capture snot shot out of their blowholes. This method allows researchers to collect biological data — including DNA and pregnancy hormones — for analysis without harming or seriously disturbing the whales.

The project is part of a collaboration between nonprofit Ocean Alliance’s Parley for the Oceans and Intel, which is providing software to perform the analyses.

Besides the SnotBots’ collections, another fleet of drones will be equipped with cameras that will capture images of the whales so scientists can identify them. This will enable the team to monitor the whales without physically tagging them.

“For lack of a better term, I’ll call it ‘facial recognition,’” Alyson Griffin, vice president in Intel’s global marketing and communications group, told Digital Trends.

When the drones snap photos and collect snot, the data is streamed back to a ship, where Intel-backed software will analyze the data in real time. This will save time from what is usually a manual and and labor-intensive process.

“Algorithms on the ship analyze the health of the water and whales,” she said, “including who’s related, whether there are viruses, and what the acidity of the water is.”

Traditionally, missions like this would require collecting DNA or blood samples from individual whales in an invasive way, while monitoring them meant physically tagging with tracking devices. Now, Griffin said scientists “can be a safe distance away where there’s no harm to the whales.”

Studying whales is of course beneficial for whales, but it’s also important for us humans and the environment as a whole. As some of the ocean’s apex predators, whales offers a glimpse of the ocean’s overall environment, which ultimately relates to the well-being of humanity.

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