‘Whalecopter’ drone swoops in for a shot and a shower

This drone’s-eye view captures two humpback whales blowing a net of bubbles around their prey. Yet portraiture is only half of what whale-watching drones can do.

The remotely controlled hexacopter that snapped this image off the New England coast last summer can also swing down to catch samples of spray that whales spout when they surface. The spray carries microbes, DNA and hormones that can expose a whale’s health and history.

Michael Moore, a whale biologist and veterinarian at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says the snap-and-sniff idea grew out of puzzling over photos of individual whales. “The biologist in me looks at the image and says, ‘It’s fat,’ but the veterinarian wants to know why,” he says. So Moore and his colleagues use a drone to take pictures of,

DRONING ON This small hexacopter can both photograph and collect whale spray samples.
M. Moore/WHOI
and then catch the blow from, a single whale.

Adapting a hexacopter for whale watching has its challenges. Drones check the ground to determine which way is up, but that doesn’t work on the pitching deck of a ship. And Federal Aviation Administration regulations often require that operators of research drones have regular pilot licenses.

Tests in July proved successful, the team reports. The drone snapped pictures from about 40 meters above the surface and then dipped to three meters for a breath of whale.