Vancouver aquarium uses drone technology to track killer whales

From surveillance to online delivery, drones are increasingly infiltrating all aspects of our daily lives, but researchers at the Vancouver aquarium are hoping the new technology will help them keep a closer eye on resident killer whale populations.

The aquarium is testing out a new tool called hexacopter, also known as an unmanned aircraft, that will allow the aquarium to track and monitor killer whales in local waters.

It is being branded as a new research method that the aquarium says is a practical way to produce high quality images of the whales.

Current research is often hindered by methods that give primarily a horizontal view of the animals.

Dr Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of the Cetacean Research Program at the aquarium, says killer whales spend a lot of time underwater and researchers often can’t see down into the water because of distance and glare.

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“The moment that they dive, they are lost from sight,” says Barrett-Lennard.

The challenge with tracking whales from manned aircraft is they go too fast or are too noisy, unlike drone technology that allows unprecedented access.

Looking at the animals from above, researchers can see much more detail, such as the length-to-width ratio that lets them assess starvation levels and determine pregnancy.

President & CEO of Vancouver Aquarium John Nightingale says B.C. killer whales have been tracked for more than 40 years, making it the longest running study of any population of marine animals anywhere on the planet.

“But that’s been from boat,” says Nightingale. “Now, all kinds of new information and data channels have opened up. The ability to systematically track the body condition of a whale gives you a statistical measure that you can repeat for years. It is a whole new window into how these whales are doing.”

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Barrett-Lennard hopes the technology will let them track the feeding patters of the whales and intervene in a timely manner.

“We know that resident killer whales, their populations fluctuate as salmon populations fluctuate,” he says. “We want to be able to tell when they are starting to get into poor condition, so we can inform fisheries managers on both sides of the border to adjust accordingly.”

“The southern resident population is critically endangered. There is no time to mess around with that population in particular,” says Barrett-Lennard. “It’s got to have enough food to be able to sustain itself. This way, we can tell if it has enough food before it almost dies.”

Barrett-Lennard says the drone view of the killer whales has also given him a new perspective on the animals he has been studying for 25 years.

“I did not expect how beautiful they are. They are stunning animals. To see them in this new perspective is awesome.” 


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