Airborne whale snot grabber
Our Whaler 1 drones were developed for Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University as part of her PhD research. The aim was to collect whale blow directly from humpback whales in the wild, moments after it is expelled from their blowhole. While other teams have done similar work before, our aim was to improve the efficiency of the operation and the quality of the samples, while keeping logistics simple and costs minimal. We started from scratch and designed a fast, agile, waterproof drone to carry a 100mm petri dish that was no larger or more complex than it needed to be for the task at hand. Airflow tests with smoke and water vapour allowed us to optimise the placement of the dish in relation to the drone's disc induction flow to ensure the greatest volume of airborne particulates were captured by the sampling gear. We also developed the mechanism to open and close the lid during flight to minimise sample contamination from external sources This also doubles the area of the sampling surface - on average, 100µL of liquid was collected and the dish opened for 6 seconds per sample. Up to 50 sampling flights were made per day. Our shortest flight was 40 seconds, from take-off, successfully sampling a whale, to landing! Please see the following publications for more information:
Geoghegan JL, Pirotta V, Harvey E, Smith A, Buchmann JP, Ostrowski M, Eden JS, Harcourt R, Holmes EC. Virological Sampling of Inaccessible Wildlife with Drones. Viruses. 2018 Jun 2;10(6):300. doi: 10.3390/v10060300. PMID: 29865228; PMCID: PMC6024715.
The next step...
Building on the success of Whaler 1, our next drone for whale science work is currently in development. An evolution of the airframe design, Whaler 2 will outwardly appear very similar, however it is quite different 'under the hood'. With improvements in every area, Whaler 2 is lighter, more powerful and more efficient. With a flight time up to 25 minutes, it has increased lifting capacity and payload versatility, downlinks HD video in real time and incorporates GPS, barometric and compass sensors for semi-autonomous flight, position and altitude holding and improved failsafing capability. It's onboard electrical power and switching systems support a greater variety of active payloads with high-power and remote control requirements. 2-stage vibration dampening ensures stable and clean video footage, while the increased buoyancy makes it easier to land and take off from the water surface. All this adds up to a much safer, more versatile and effective UAV platform for this type of aerial marine work.
'Project X'- While Whaler 2 is perfect for carrying the Flip-lid petri dish gear for collecting whale snot, it has been optimised to carry an exciting new scientific payload which will provide a new type of airborne capability and truly pushes the limits of UAV technology as they stand.The details are confidential at this stage, but watch this space for a true world first!