A Drone's Eye View of the Ocean

Duke's Marine Lab is the first facility approved by the FAA to use drones in marine research.

BEAUFORT — Whales are the largest creatures on Earth. But seeing them from above puts into perspective not only just how large, but also how majestic, these ocean-dwelling mammals are. 

We’re looking from a vantage point of only 100-feet or less above the whales as they surface to breath. Researchers are able to secure this incredible birds-eye-view with drone technology. And these drones are capturing more than just video. 

“In the case of big whales, we’re using drones to collect images as well as their exhalate,” explains Dave Johnston, Executive Director of the Marine Conservation Ecology Unoccupied Systems Facility. “You can also say we’re collecting whale snot to understand a little bit more about their health.” 

The facility is more commonly known as the Duke Drone Center. It opened in 2015 at Duke University’s Marine Lab in Beaufort. 

Johnston figured out a way to attach a collection plate on top of the drone and then fly the vehicle through the blow of a whale when it exhales. It turns out whale snot provides a lot of information. 

“I have kids and everyone knows when your kid is snotty there’s something going on and you can learn a lot about what’s happening by looking at it,” says Johnston, trying not to chuckle as he explains his invention. “The same is true with whales because we can bring the whale snot back to the lab for analysis to study the microbiome and see what is living in the respiratory tract.” 

In addition, scientists can also extract hormones from the snot and determine the sex of the whale and, if the whale is a female, determine if it is pregnant. 

The whale study is just one example of how researchers at Duke’s Drone Center are taking to the skies above to study the seas and the coastline below. The lab is one of the first in the nation to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones to study the marine environment. 

The lab has ten different drones and each is used for a specific mission. For example, a fixed wing drone can cover a large distance with a flight time of about 50 minutes. 

“So you can put different sensors in here, including normal and infrared,” explains Everette Newton, a retired Air Force Colonel, who is part of the lab’s drone team. He opens a small door on top of a drone, which is a small plane in the shape of a flying wing. “It also has a small battery bay, but it’s very efficient. This small antenna on top is for the data link, so the drone can talk back to your computer. This other antenna is an airspeed indicator just like a normal aircraft.” 

Newton then puts the small wing-shaped drone on a table and picks up what most people might consider a more common drone. This one has eight small propellers on top. 

“If you need to hover, you would use something like a multi-coptor, because the ability to hover over something is very powerful,” adds Newton, who explains this drone is what collected the whale images and whale snot. “We launched his from the deck of a researcher vessel and could monitor what the right whales and calves were doing off the coast of Florida.” 

Researchers are testing different combinations of drones, cameras and software, to capture the right type of images for a project at the right price. Drones are able to provide research platforms at a low cost and at virtually a moment’s notice. The lab is studying images of the overwash from Hurricane Matthew at Bird Shoal, off the coast of North Carolina. The images were taken just days after the hurricane came through the area and left behind 13 or more inches of rain. The devastating floodwaters were still receding and heading towards the ocean while the drone flew overhead. 

Drones have also been used to study whether populations of protected marine species are recovering or declining. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration asked the team to capture images of gray seals on the islands of between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts. 

The team flew five sorties, or missions, and stitched the images together into an orthomosaic: one large almost three-dimensional picture. The resolution is two centimeters per pixel, which is so clear, the drones can pick up images of plastic bottles on the beach, as well as tracks left behind by people and seals. 

“In this case you can clearly see the seal pups, because the pups are white and the adults are a darker color,” says Newton as he moves a cursor to scan across the image on a screen. “And up in the corner, you can spot a mother seal nursing her pup. It’s all really extraordinary and it's very powerful because you can count all of the seals. Nobody knows how many seals there are, it’s just believed that right now the gray seals are recovering. This provides some firm numbers.” 

“The equipment is revolutionizing how we study marine and coastal systems and the animals that live in them,” says Johnston, who adds that not only can drones be used to study current environments, such as counting seals or the health and behavior of whales, but the current images can be compared to studies conducted years ago, to see how things have changed. 

A good example of that type of science is in the study of coastal erosion. 

Johnston recently captured images of the western end of Shackelford Banks, a large island off the coast of Beaufort. The pictures were compared with a study conducted in 2012. The pictures provided clear evidence of how the tip of island had eroded roughly 800 feet in four years. 

“We’re using a tool that is much better for the science we are doing because it reduces the impact of things we are doing,” explains Johnston, “And that can range from disturbing wildlife to disturbing wildlife sanctuaries.” The rare drone system of research is helping gain information and leave less of a mark, all done with a unique drone's eye view.

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