An Economical Custom-Built Drone for Assessing Whale Health

In a recently published research article of the same name, a project using waterproof drones collect “whale snot” is described. Why? To help sample whale blow to assess whale health. Specifically, the researchers were looking for microbiota or bacteria living in whale lungs, and using that information to assess whales’ health. All research was conducted off Sydney, Australia and was a collaboration with Macquarie University in Sydney and Heliguy (a Sydney based drone company).


The drones used were custom built, and had a remotely operated flip-lid which is unique to the project. This flip-lid minimized the amount of contamination of the sample. The dish could be opened and closed on command to reduce the amount of sea water and air contamination. A simple yet effective addition to the drone to fit it for the purpose. To save on costs, the drone did not have GPS or anything fancy and was operated in manual mode.

For the project, the drones were launched from the back of a boat and flown out to whales over 200m away. This was a great (safe!) alternative to sampling invasively from whales which can be dangerous when working close to a 40,000kg animal! For those concerned with the potential effect on the whales, rest assured that scientific licenses were obtained, and animal ethics protocols were followed when flying close to whales.

The drone design was based off racing style type drones and required a high skill level to launch from a vessel, target a whale, sample a whale, secure the sample and return and land back onto a research vessel.

A first for whale research in Australia, this study is a great example of science meets technology.

Read the article here.