Meet a One-Eyed, Six-Legged, Flying Whale Chaser
biologists are turning to less obtrusive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to spot species including whales, dolphins, sea lions and penguins. From small helicopters to planes with a 10-foot (3 meters) wingspan, the battery-powered craft could become a popular new tool.
"What makes these things so effective is they capture a tremendous amount of information," said NOAA marine biologist Wayne Perryman, based at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif.
For years, Perryman has experimented with military reconnaissance techniques to track marine life. He collaborates with former Navy officer Don LeRoi of Aerial Imaging Solutions in Connecticut.
Their latest device is a hexacopter. With six quiet engines, internal gyroscopes, an accelerometer and a GPS, the mechanical bird has great maneuverability, Perryman said. For the past two years, Perryman has snapped shots of penguin and seal colonies in Antarctica with the hexacopter. Future trips include a jaunt to Alaska to survey stellar sea lions.
"When you get into aggregations of thousands of animals, humans are lousy at determining how many animals there are," Perryman told OurAmazingPlanet. "With photography, you can go back in time and see something you maybe wouldn’t have noticed," he adds.
Sperm whale spotting
In February and March, Perryman and LeRoi helped an international science team track sperm whales near New Zealand by capturing whale photos with the copter. The scientists attached tracking tags to the whales, and knowing their size and shape from the photos improves understanding of how the whales dive underwater, Perryman said. It was the first ship-based test for the ‘copter, named Archie by the scientists onboard.
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