Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.
Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the whales than when operating from a research boat.
“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).
Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote areas.
In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and still pictures, including those on this page. See also NOAA’s website.
One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale, including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy, underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to assess.
Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females who seemed to be pregnant.
They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however, is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?
Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its life.
Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.
A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress hormones, potential pathogens and other things.
“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build individual health profiles and begin to understand when something is going wrong,” Hanson said.
Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end. Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces from the water.
If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near the whales.
In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.
One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.
The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22 marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.
Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.