Better bang for the buck
First, and most importantly, is the cost. The majority of marine mammal research groups worldwide are reliant on some combination of photo-ID work and localized distribution/abundance surveys. The primary reasons for this is that this work is both highly valuable and relatively inexpensive to collect. When a group wishes to extend beyond this however, they have fewer options: tools for marine mammal science can be very expensive. This is particularly true in the developing world where there is less funding available (though, often, where there is the most pressing need for data).
Drones could help change this. Our least expensive drone is the DJI Mavic PRO which costs under $1,000 USD. For what the drone can do, this is remarkably cheap. It can collect remarkable behavioural data, respiratory samples, images for photogrammetry analysis and beautiful video for community engagement and science communication.
The less expensive the tool, the more people can afford it. The more people can afford it, the more people there will be using it collect this data. Drones are opening up a wide variety of robust data sets to many researchers across the planet who previously could not afford to collect data of this quality.
Second is the benign/minimally invasive nature of these tools. Whilst more research is needed, the evidence currently available strongly suggests that drones are indeed minimally invasive towards the animal. Over recent decades, increasing attention has been directed towards the potential negative effects of some forms of research on whales, as both the public and scientific communities become more interested in animal welfare. Ocean Alliance itself was founded by Dr. Roger Payne in 1971 on the notion that more could be learned from a live whale than a dead one. We believe that there xists a moral obligation on behalf of the researcher to, if possible conduct research in as benign a way as possible.
The arguments for non-invasive research methodologies are not just ethical. The observer effect, whereby the act of studying an animal changes that animal’s behaviour, can be difficult to control for. For instance, if a researcher is close to a whale on a research vessel, the mere presence of that research vessel might in some way change the behaviour of the whale. Unless the researcher has a specific hypothesis related to how a whale acts in the presence of a vessel etc., it is in the researcher’s best interest to collect data which represents the animal acting in as natural a behavior as possible.
Additionally, if sufficient evidence can explicitly demonstrate the non-invasive nature of drones, then permitting authorities could potentially relax regulations and restrictions regarding the use of drones above whales to allow for repeated sampling. If researchers could repeatedly sample the same individual over the course of a few minutes/hours/days/months or years, then they could begin to build up a very unique dataset, allowing for fine scale insights into changes in hormone levels such as stress and changes into the microbiome community of the respiratory tract.
Third is sampling rate and simple size. From 1998 to 2014, Ocean Alliance focused its research activities on studying toxicology in marine mammals. As a part of this, we collected over 1700 skin/blubber biopsies from large whales in every major ocean on the planet. It was the relative difficult of this, of collecting such samples, that led Ocean Alliance to the search for a new means of collecting biological samples, a search which eventually led to drones and the SnotBot program.
Current methods of collecting physical samples can be invasive, difficult to obtain (resulting in reduced potential sampling rate/sample size), subject to permitting restrictions further inhibiting potential sample size, and opportunistic.
Drones, in the right hands are fast and manoeuvrable. A drone can far more easily and quickly position itself for a sample collection than a research vessel. This allows researchers using drones in this manner to achieve a high sampling rate (i.e. collect a large number of samples in a short period of time), and thus ultimately a large number of samples.
However, to achieve a high sampling rate, a good and experienced pilot is imperative.