Scientists have captured an amazing bird’s-eye video of killer whales, not from a plane or a helicopter, but from an aerial drone.
Last month, researchers from Vancouver Aquarium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used a hexacopter to take 30,000 photos of a northern resident killer whale population over the course of 60 flights. The researchers can use these aerial photos to evaluate the health of individual whales, including to determine whether they are sick or pregnant.
Here’s a clip taken from the drone on one of its flights, you can see the whole pod traveling together:
It may sound crazy, but aerial images can give researchers all kinds of information from afar.
“We can monitor how robust, how healthy populations are, by looking at the relationships between their size and their shape,” says Wayne Perryman, a researcher with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center who also uses drones to research marine animals. “If it’s a female, we can tell if she’s pregnant or not. We can monitor how animals change in shape as they go through pregnancy, as they lactate. So all these kinds of basic life history questions that you used to have to have your arms around an animal to ask, we can ask those with photographs.”
Even better, drones seem to be less intrusive to marine life than boats. The researchers in this expedition reported that their drone appeared to go unnoticed by the Orcas. The technology holds promise as a way to get close to animals without stressing them out or putting human researchers in danger.
Drones are becoming increasingly popular for scientific applications and conservation work, and have been used for everything from surveying endangered dugongs in Australia to deterring poachers in Africa.