Even if you’ve never seen a drone in flight, you’ve seen the footage they capture for movies, sporting events and your typical advertisement for the newest SUV.
You may have also seen some of the spectacular images drones have captured of whales, dolphins, and other marine animals as they provide scientists and documentary film-makers with a new vantage point to observe these majestic creatures.
But you may be less familiar with the world of professional drone racing, and even less familiar with how skills developed in that world can be used to explore the health of whales offshore.
Vancouver-based, Swiss-born 33-year-old Gabriel Kocher started flying drones in 2013. With a PhD in physics from McGill University, he was easily lured by the appeal of tinkering with electronics that were able to take him on a wild immersive ride.
He discovered drone racing online and figured he could do better than the participants in the early races. These aren’t the sort of drones you can buy at the electronics store: these are stripped-down, lightweight, and highly customizable drones flown in first-person view (FPV), with images from a forward-facing camera transmitted to the pilot’s goggles.
Within a few years, Kocher won the Canadian national championship several times and now flies for the national team. However, professional drone racers didn’t exist when he started flying, so he initially supported his obsession with a variety of contracts for filming opportunities before sponsorship deals started rolling in. “I generally use FPV racing drones for filming work,” says Kocher. “They are a tremendous tool when it gets to extreme conditions, unique angles, speed, and agility.”
However, racing drones at the top level now typically involves a “stock” drone, meaning that all pilots are given identical machines, so only pilot ability matters. “I really do enjoy the engineering aspect to push the envelope of filming with drones,” said Kocher.
It was at this point that scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada contacted him in 2019 with an unusual request: to build a drone capable of capturing the exhalation of a whale—called “blow” (but essentially snot).
“It seemed like an absolutely wacko project!” Kocher recalls. “Looking into it, I thought it would be a fun and challenging project, so I took it on.”
He dove into the challenges in balancing the extra weight of the waterproofing and floatability of the drone, plus the motor-driven petri dish collection mechanism, with the need to keep the drone light and nimble.
Kocher named the resulting drone the PeQuad, combining the name of the fictional whaling ship from Moby-Dick (the Pequod) with a reference to the fact that the drone itself is a quadcopter.
Unfortunately, when it came to testing the PeQuad on the water, the was a conflict with Kocher’s racing schedule. So one of his Team Canada comrades got another unusual call.
“This is the craziest thing I have ever been asked to do,” says 30-year old Liam Olders from Ottawa, While worrying about if it even be possible, and the potential of losing a drone, he decided to take on the challenge (but was glad to not be flying his own drone)fl.
“What an opportunity!” he says.
After winning Adobe’s Best Portfolio Award when graduating from Algonquin College in Digital Photography in 2011, Olders took up a job selling Volkswagens while working as a freelance photographer on the side. A fan of remote-control cars, he was drawn to custom quad drones that started to come out in 2015. Uncertain of the money-making potential, but seizing the opportunity to combine his passions, Olders built his first custom camera FPV drone within a few months. He quit his job to start his own aerial photography business as soon as he could fly it.
Now on Team Canada, Olders gets sponsorship for his racing, but still relies mostly on his photography business to pay the bills.
Flying commercial drones is a different experience. They have sensors and stabilizers that keep them steady and hold them in place when the pilot gives no instruction. In contrast, racing drones lack these electronic aids and are completely manual control. This means they will not stay in the air without pilot input, but this allows them to turn, flip and twist in some spectacular ways.
“All the hours I have accumulated in drone racing has made flying photography drones incredibly easy—almost boring,” says Olders.
While excited by the new challenge, he worried about spending two weeks offshore on a research boat—would he be too seasick to do the job?
Until that abated, he only left his bunk to fly the drone. “When my flights were done, it was back to bed,” he says. “I am not sure how the other scientists were able to function all day long on their feet and keep their meals down.”
Olders was particularly worried about flying through the goggles on a platform that was moving beneath him. “It is a weird feeling when your body is moving up and down, but your drone is cruising steady over the water,” he says.
Fortunately, the professional took over. “Once I was on the flight deck with my whales in view, I found myself incredibly focused on the task at hand and not bothered by motion sickness during my relatively short flights,” he says.
Not that there was much time for anything else. “Once the scientists had identified the whale, I’d only have a few minutes to get the sample before the whale went down for another dive,” he adds.
Being extremely cautious for his first-ever flight over open water, he learned how the PeQuad behaved and its limitations. A whale conveniently surfaced just a few hundred metres off the port side of the boat.
“Before these cruises, I had never seen whales in person,” he says. “It was extremely thrilling and nerve wracking at first. These animals are huge! I remember constantly shouting out in excitement at what I was seeing as I was flying over them.”
Olders collected the first blow sample, carefully wrapping up and labelling it with the diligence of a seasoned biologist.
Olders was happy to rejoin the researchers for a second season in 2020 and has now collected over 50 samples of blow from four different whale species. He has his sea legs and spends more time standing vertical on the deck.
Kocher redesigned parts of the drone based on his feedback, incorporating new HD goggle technology to replace the old analogue goggles to give Olders an even better view. “I could now see all the details on each whale, scars, the blow hole, eyes,” he explains. “It made the job easier because I could see how the wind affected the direction the blow moved, or how the waves looked as they covered the whales’ backs.”
While government scientists seek to deploy the snot-catching PeQuad for another season in 2021 or 2022, the members of Team Canada has some of their own ideas.
Olders, who never thought he’d ever be involved in whale research, sees the potential to adapt the PeQuad for other research, while Kocher notes the potential applications of the waterproofing technology in the cinematography world.
“Imagine flying through a snowboarder’s snow spray, a tropical storm, diving through a cloud or zipping through a waterfall,” he says. “All those things can be done now.”
But both agree this collaboration between drone racers and whale biologists is unusual, but rewarding.
“Nothing comes close to spending two weeks straight on a boat surrounded by whales,” says Olders. “At the end of the day, the team is always jealous of how much time I spend looking at the whales, feeling like I am right there swimming beside them. When I wait for their blows, I skim a few feet over their backs. Just me and the whale with our boat in the distance.”
Kocher sums up: “The PeQuad was by far the strangest thing I’ve had to put together!”
Author’s Note: All activities were conducted under the Species At Risk Act, Fisheries Act, and other permits, following COVID-19 protocols.. Australian company Heliguy originally built the servo-mounted petri-dish system, and researchers thank them immensely for sharing the design.