A team of marine biologists affiliated with several US institutions, working with a colleague from Mexico, has discovered that it is possible to use drones to apply suction cups to whales as an alternative to doing it by hand. In their study, reported in the journal Royal Society Open Sciencethe group tested the use of an unmanned aerial system-based tag deployment system with free-swimming whales.
Scientists have been studying whales for many years and have developed a wide range of tools to improve their methods. One of the more useful tools is biologging tags, which are sensors attached to a whale’s body to collect data on its behavior and track its location. The most common type of bio-logging tag used on whales involves the use of suction cups to hold the sensors firmly against the skin.
The traditional way of placing such tagging devices is to sail to a part of the sea where whales are observed and then use a small boat. The scientists then approach the whale and then attach a suction tag to its body using a long pole. Such a method has been found to disturb the whales, leading to anxiety and changes in their behavior, which undermines the point of studying them in the first place. It was also found to be dangerous to the people in the boat. To overcome both of these problems, the team behind this new effort has tried an entirely new approach – using drones.
A series of photos showing the deployment of the DTAG using the launch system and the release of the tag holder and fins on impact, which float up for recovery and reuse. credit: Royal Society Open Science (2023). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.221376
The researchers first developed a pneumatic system to launch markers from various drones using a small rocket-like device. The system was tested in the lab and elsewhere using DJI Matrice M210 V2 and DJI Inspire 2 drones. They then boarded a research vessel and headed to Loreto Bay National Park, off the coast of Mexico. There, they sent their drone to tag the whales 29 separate times, deploying the suction cups successfully 21 times.
The researchers also note that the process is faster than using a boat — the drones’ flight time averaged just 2.45 minutes. They also managed to keep the research vessel’s father away from the whale, preventing stress. The average flight distance was 490 meters. They also noted that the response to tagging by the whales was minimal.
David N. Wiley et al. Deploying biological tags on free-swimming large whales using unmanned aerial systems, Royal Society Open Science (2023). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.221376
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