Nature and Biodiversity

How the ‘SnotBot’ and 2 other drones are helping us save endangered species

SnotBot uses drone technology to collect biological samples from whales and dolphins to monitor their health and wellbeing.

SnotBot uses drone technology to collect biological samples from whales and dolphins to monitor their health and wellbeing. Image: SnotBot/Christian Miller

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Nature and Biodiversity

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Drone technology is changing conservation, making data easier and cheaper to collect.
  • SnotBot uses drone technology to collect biological samples from whales and dolphins to monitor their health and wellbeing.
  • Researchers are using the unique thermal imaging fingerprint of individual species to monitor Madagascar’s endangered wildlife.
  • Drones can more easily pick up signals from radio-tagged rare species like New Zealand’s kakapo.

Better understanding our natural world is a huge part of conserving it. But how do you get to better know an animal like a blue whale? At over 30 metres long and weighing in at over 130 tonnes, they don’t exactly fit in your typical laboratory.

In recent years, drone technology has opened new doors to conservationists. Elusive endangered species can be located, individual animals can be identified and tracked, and health and wellbeing can be monitored.

As pollution, human interference and climate change put increasing numbers of species under threat, here are three projects where drones have boosted our knowledge of the animal kingdom.

The SnotBot drone
Whales and dolphins face increasing threats - the SnotBot drone is helping us better understand them. Image: SnotBot/christian miller

1. SnotBot: Monitoring whale wellbeing

It might have a name which would set any child off in a fit of giggles, but SnotBot is a serious bit of scientific kit. The modified consumer drone flies through the exhaled blow of a whale and collects ‘snot’ on petri dishes. The moist air of this blow contains a mass of useful information for scientists, including DNA, stress and pregnancy hormones, microbiomes and potentially other indicators of the whale’s health.

SnotBot has been collecting data on blue whales for the last 5 years
SnotBot has been collecting data on blue whales for the last 5 years Image: Instagram/SnotBot

Totally non-invasive, the SnotBot is helping scientists understand whales and dolphins, many of which are critically endangered, in a way which doesn't stress them out. It also offers a relatively affordable way of collecting data.

With threats to sea life multiplying - from fishing net entanglement and pollution, mainly - monitoring whale and dolphin wellbeing is increasingly important.

Since not-for-profit the Ocean Alliance started using SnotBot, it has realized where else drones could be used in whale and dolphin research. For example, its waterproof EarBot drone has been used to collect bio-acoustics data on whales. And it is also able to attach data tags the size of hockey pucks to whales using drones - previously this had to be done by researchers in a boat with a long pole.

The organization says that using a $1,000 drone, a researcher today can collect data which would have cost $20,000 or more to collect just a decade ago.

2. Using thermal fingerprints to look out for lemurs

Thermal fingerprints
Two spider monkeys are spotted via their thermal fingerprint. Image: Liverpool John Moores University

Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University realized that drone technology could be combined with thermal imaging to identify species in the biodiversity hotspot that is Madagascar.

Each species has a unique thermal fingerprint, so once the animal is detected by drone-mounted infrared cameras, machine learning can be used to tell them apart.

Researchers found that this system was able to identify spider monkeys more accurately than on-the-ground surveys in 83% of cases. This presents a great opportunity for conservation of the island’s many critically endangered species, including its famous lemurs.

The technology has also been put to use tracking poachers threatening the vulnerable lemurs.

3. Locating radio-tagged kakapos

Radio-tagged kakapos
Radio-tagged kakapos can be easily monitored with drones. Image: WIldlife Drones

With only 200 or so birds remaining, New Zealand’s kakapo population is critically endangered.

Although the individual birds are fitted with radio transmitters which enable them to be monitored, it can be difficult to locate them in the rugged landscape that is their home. With a drone it is possible to survey large areas in a much shorter time, detecting the signals from multiple birds, including those in areas inaccessible on foot.

Radio tagging and drones have been put to similar use tracking elusive Rosenberg’s goannas in Australia's Namadgi National Park.

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