Using a hexacopter flying 30 metres above the surface of the water, researchers have been able to capture valuable information about the health and habits of killer whales in efforts to aid the population recovery of the marine mammals on the West Coast.
This is the first time UAVs have been used to help monitor killer whales, and the team -- a collaboration between Vancouver Aquarium Senior Marine Mammal Scientist Dr Lance Barrett-Lennard, and researchers Dr John Durban and Dr Holly Fearnbach from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- has captured over 30,000 photographs during more than 60 flights, as well as some absolutely stunning footage.
"This was the first time a hexacopter has been used in killer whale field research, and the advantages of this kind of observation are immediately obvious," Dr Barrett-Lennard said. "We can determine much more about a whale's health and condition from above than we can from water surface level."
Using the drone -- an APH-22 marine hexacopter built by Aerial Imaging Solutions, nicknamed Mobly -- the team was able to determine that several of the whales they observed were pregnant, information that was previously undetectable; and that several whales were sickly.
"The hexacopter gives us a more sensitive metric of the whales' condition than we've previously had. Killer whales can buffer short-term lack of food by living on their blubber, and substituting water into their blubber layer, so they camouflage it when they are in poor condition. From above, we can observe and assess their girth, and know much earlier when they are in trouble," said Dr Barrett-Lennard.
He added, "Identifying pregnancies, and then observing the outcome and number of calves born will allow more precision when calculating the neonatal mortality rate."
The team was able to determine the noise impact of the hexacopter on the whales, too: although it sounds quite loud in the video below, at its altitude, up higher than sea birds fly, it didn't bother the whales at all -- they could neither hear nor see it, unlike manned helicopters, which need to fly at altitudes of over 250 metres in order to avoid disturbing the animals.
"We saw fish chases, youngsters playing, a great deal of touching and social behaviour within family groups, killer whales and dolphins swimming together peacefully and much more. The bottom line is that the method worked wonderfully well," Dr Barrett-Lennard wrote on his blog.
"We are convinced now that Mobly -- or one of his cousins -- will be an invaluable part of our research program for years to come, as we focus on recovering resident killer whale populations by, among other things, ensuring they have enough to eat."