The Vancouver Aquarium has turned to using an unmanned hexacopter drone to track, monitor and capture footage of wild orca whales.
While drones are best known for their surveillance uses and, most recently, as an inexpensive way to capture aerial shots of cities and vistas, this is the first time ever the technology is being used for the scientific purposes of monitoring whales.
Scientists at the Vancouver Aquarium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made their first drone flight monitoring the health of 77 Northern Resident orca whales in August 2014. However, this is not a consumer-grade drone: an APH-22 marine hexacopter built by Aerial Imaging Solutions, owned by NOAA, is used for the flights.
Since then, they have collected 30,000 photographs taken during 60 flights in Johnstone Strait – the waterway between northern Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland.
Without disturbing the whales, scientists are able to view the girth and size of whales and determine whether the mammals are sick or pregnant. Video footage and photographs have already revealed several pregnancies, which were previously undetectable from the perspective of a boat.
“We can determine much more about a whale’s health and condition from above than we can from water surface level,” said Vancouver Aquarium senior marine mammal Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard in a statement.
Feature Image: YouTube screenshot via Vancouver Aquarium