The future of the world’s whales may depend on a drone called ‘SnotBot’

Dr. Iain Kerr is crouched on a wooden dock, a faded red hat shielding his face from the August sun as he fiddles with a battery pack barely bigger than a box of matches. The dock, framed by the rocky Gloucester coast, sways slightly on the bright blue water.

In his hands is a small white drone that just might save the world’s endangered whales — and, by extension, rescue our polluted oceans, too. In the coming months, Kerr plans to release the drone over the waters of Patagonia, the Sea of Cortez, and the Alaskan coast, where it will soar above the graceful sea mammals and collect data samples from the water spouted from their blow holes into the sky.

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“The old saying is ‘save the whales,’’’ said Kerr, the CEO of Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at conservation. “It really now might be ‘saved by the whales.’ They can tell us of problems we need to know about.’’

The key ingredient here, Kerr explains, is whale snot. The messy stuff is actually a gold mine for scientists, offering crucial data about whales’ DNA, pregnancy and stress hormones, viruses, bacteria, and information scientists may not have even fathomed yet.

“When you go to the doctor, they take blood. You can’t go up and take a blood sample from a whale,’’ he says. “But the next best thing to the blood is the mucus—snot—or exhaled breath condensate that is coming out of the lungs.’’

That’s why Kerr has christened his drone with the name “SnotBot.’’

Whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which restricts human activities when marine mammals are present. The SnotBot has been put to the test to ensure it’s as minimally invasive as possible while still being equipped to collect hard data. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regulations haven’t caught up to the drone technology, Kerr says.

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According to NOAA, you can’t fly an aircraft within 1,000 feet of marine animals. But Federal Aviary Regulations prohibit flying a drone higher than 400 feet. In order to effectively collect snot from the whale’s blow, the SnotBot has to be within about 12 feet of the mammal.

Kerr and his team applied for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries, a subsect of NOAA, last April and expect to get it in December. They’ve also applied for certification from the FAA. They have already obtained permits for Argentina and plan to go there in September.

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On the dock, Luke Rivers, a 20-year-old intern with Ocean Alliance, holds SnotBot above his head as Kerr pushes the joystick on a white remote to set the drone’s blades spinning with a sound like a swarm of bees. The drone — a replica of what they’ll use out in the open water — hovers straight up into the air, out of Rivers’s hands.

Moments later, water sprays skyward from a small flotation device drifting on the water that resembles a tiny catamaran, where a 3D-printed blowhole is attached to a long white tube made of PVC piping. This is Kerr’s “surrogate’’ whale—the SnotShot—so he can test the SnotBot before it’s around real whales.

This isn’t the actual SnotBot that will be used in the field, though. That one is equipped with a sponge and pipette tubes to collect the samples and is much quieter so as not to disturb the whales. The one zipping around the inlet has a GoPro camera attached so that Kerr can practice positioning the drone in the right spot.

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The inspiration for SnotBot came about 10 years ago, when Kerr was on a camping trip in the San Ignacio Lagoon with his wife and then 2-year-old daughter.

“They’ve got this friendly gray whale phenomenon where they come up close to the boat, and I picked up my daughter, leaned her over, and the whale exhaled in her face,’’ Kerr said. “Now, from a scientific perspective, I thought it was wonderful. Somehow, she didn’t appreciate 20 mph whale snot in her eyes, in her face, and on her clothes.’’

Kerr said they washed her clothes multiple times, but still couldn’t get the smell out. That’s when he realized there was a host of biological information waiting to be studied in whale snot.

“There are whales all over the world, so you could call them an indicator species, or even a barometer for ocean health,’’ Kerr says.

Research expeditions can be extremely costly. The SnotBot can work as a live feed available for anyone around the world to tune into, Kerr says. If someone’s interested in whale lice, for example, they can make those observations remotely from the SnotBot footage.

Kerr pilots the drone back to the other side of the dock, where Rivers has scrambled back to catch the SnotBot for a hand capture. It’s a perfect landing.

“It’s the best snot simulator, but it’s still only a simulator,’’ Kerr says of the SnotShot.

Still, he’s confident in his SnotBot, and its ability to garner interest from people outside of the marine-biology world. Patrick Stewart is on board, after all.

“We’ve got snot, we’ve got celebrity, we’ve got technology,’’ Kerr says, “And we’ve got empowering and effecting change.’’

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