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Why are scientists using drones to catch whale snot?

SnotBot builds on 2010’s Ig Nobel prize-winning idea of using flying machines for whale research

The snot-catching toy helicopter from 2008. Courtesy: ZSL

It's the mid-2000s. Veterinarian and conservation biologist Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse straps on a few Petri dishes to a remote-controlled toy-sized helicopter and sails into the Gulf of California looking for whales. She wants to collect their boogers to study their health. And flying a mini-chopper over a whale just as it evacuates its blow-hole seems much safer than the technique Karina had tried before: Tying herself to a research boat and leaning overboard to catch the coveted snot!

Her wacky toy helicopter idea got the London-based scientist and her team at Zoological Society of London an ‘Ig Nobel’ Prize for Engineering in 2010.

(Ig Nobel is a good-natured parody of the Nobel Prize, honoring achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think!)

Fast-forward a decade and whale snot becomes serious business. The Drones for Whale Research (DFWR) program emerges at a nonprofit organization called Ocean Alliance. And they partner with Olin College of Engineering to build a customized drone which would hover in the air above a surfacing whale and collect samples from its 30-feet-high sneeze, before returning safely to researchers who are positioned about half a mile away. Ocean Alliance names its custom drone SnotBot.

DJI Inspire 2 SnotBot capturing a whale's blow off Gabon West Africa

But how does the drone, a modified DJI Inspire 2, weather the slurry of hot air and sticky mucus gushing from the whale's blowhole?

Ocean Alliance’s CEO, Dr. Iain Kerr, explains this to HowStuffWorks. “SnotBot is a very counter-intuitive tool. The whale blows snot up in the air but the drone pushes air down to fly, so technically the snot should just be blown away. Also, the collection Petri dishes are on the top of the drone not on the bottom. So how does this work? We approach a whale from behind as it is moving forward and the snot arcs up and is sucked back down onto the top of the drone where the Petri dishes are waiting.”

The nonprofit says it crashed a lot of drones while working out the technological hurdles (some even on purpose) but wound up with a system that could be count on to gather the vital data.

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr and the Olin College crew testing Snotbots in the Gulf

With thousands of whales getting killed or injured every year because of human activities, the initiative could not be more opportune. The blow samples that SnotBot collects contain microbiomes, whale DNA, viruses, tissue particles, as well as stress and pregnancy hormones, among other indicators of the marine mammal’s health.

The non-invasive data collection procedure is much more affordable and practical than traditional methods, wherein scientists have to rely on samples from dead, stranded, or captive animals – in no way a true representation of the normal population.

Little wonder that Ocean Alliance was able to get Sir Patrick Stewart on board to support the program!


Ishveena Singh is a versatile journalist and writer with a passion for drones and location technologies. In the last 12 years, she has worked with both mainstream media organizations (Miami Herald International, Times of India, Microsoft MSN) and dedicated geospatial technology media (Geospatial World, Geoawesomeness).

With a deep understanding of content marketing and social media, Ishveena also helps private companies (DJI, Aerodyne Group, Terra Drone Corporation) to generate qualified leads through useful and timely content.

When she is not making magic at her desk, you are likely to find Ishveena on road trips, eating her way through life, or binge-watching TV shows. Connect with her today on LinkedIn and Twitter


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