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Drones to doctor endangered species of humpback whales

One of the first things that a doctor does when assessing the patient’s health is to measure the vital signs of the patient.

But a problem occurs when the patient is a huge, endangered paikea humpback whale. How can their vital signs be measured?

A new research from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury (UC) suggests that drones might be the solution.

According to a recent press release, a team of international scientists led by the University’s environmental geochemist Associate Professor Travis Horton has measured the temperature, respiration rate and heart rate of free-swimming great whale using a ‘drone doctor’.

This feat is a world first as measuring whale health remains to be a long-standing challenge for cetacean scientists and conservationists.

However, advances in technology such as drone technology, infrared imaging and data-processing have created unique opportunities to help whales survive.

Background of the initiative

Every winter, humpback whales return to their tropical breeding grounds throughout Oceania to give birth as well as raise their newborn calves.

The adults range in length from 12m to 16m and weigh around 25-30 metric tons.

For the endangered paikea humpback whales of Polynesia measuring and monitoring whale health is of paramount importance.

Their population was decimated by whaling through the second-half of the 20th century and they remain to be the only endangered migratory humpbacks on the planet today.

The breakthrough happened when the Associate Professor’s team of scientists deployed an infrared camera on a quad-copter drone in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, during the 2018 humpback whale calving season.

Instead of engaging with the whales by boat, the scientists stayed onshore and took pictures of the whales from above.

Utilising drone technology

Using non-invasive drones allowed the team to record high-resolution infrared videos of a mother whale resting at the ocean’s surface over a period of three hours.

The resulting infrared data enabled measurement of body temperature, breathing rate, and heart rate based on changes in skin temperature at the blowholes and major arteries present in the dorsal fin.

The key outcome from this multi-disciplinary research is the creation of a non-invasive method for measuring marine mammal vital signs and health.

The research has helped South Pacific nations better understand endangered paikea humpback whales.

In addition, the research also establishes a novel technological platform for measuring the biomedical condition of cetaceans inhabiting highly utilised marine environments, animals tangled in fishing lines, and live-stranded whales.

OpenGov Asia recently reported on Drones to help New Zealand’s economy take off. Drones will deliver economic benefits by doing tasks that are time intensive, expensive and risky.

The Government’s vision for how drones can be better integrated into the current transport system in order to develop a thriving, innovative and safe sector is set out in a paper they have just released.

Called, “Taking Flight: an aviation system for the automated age”, the document aims to provide the sector with a clear understanding of the Government’s role, and its strategic direction and priority areas, to achieve the safe integration of drones into the aviation system and broader transport system.

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