Virology with Drones

Sampling Whale Snot at Sea Using a UAV

Alasdair Allan
3 min readJun 6, 2018

Sometimes you come across a piece of science that just blows you away, that makes you go “…we can do that now?” Nothing has done that more for me recently than Vanessa Pirotta’s tweet a couple of days ago pointing to her virology paper on the sampling snot from the Eastern Australian Humpback Whale, using a drone.

Sampling the snot of the Eastern Australian Humpback Whale, by drone. (📷: Vanessa Pirotta)

As computing becomes more capable, and the peace dividend of the smartphone wars makes sensors such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and even cameras, trivially cheap and readily available, we’ve seen some amazing science done on commodity hardware.

Projects like Safecast, a global volunter-centered citizen science project that started in the wake of the Fukishima disaster back in 2011, and Public Lab, who got their start after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, have brought science into the community.

However, in parallel the use of commodity hardware amongst professional scientists has also grown. Tools like the Arduino have vastly simplified getting science done in the most extreme environments, and latest commodification wars has dropped the price of drone hardware sufficiently that now they too have become a lever to new and different types of science.

The team, primarily based at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney — including Pirotta along with her her co-authors, Jemma Geoghegan, Erin Harvey, Alastair Smith, Jan Buchmann, Martin Ostrowski, John-Sebastian Eden, Robert Harcourt and Edward Holmes — managed to obtain whale blow samples from 19 humpbacks during the 2017 annual northward migration from Antarctica to northern Australia using a purpose-built UAV. It is the first time that a UAV have been used to sample viruses.

The drone was designed specifically for the purpose and is a four-motor electric multi-rotor 500 mm (approx 19.5 inches) across, “….it has a relatively high power to weight ratio making it fast, manoeuvrable, resistant to strong wind gusts and relatively quiet while hovering. It carries the bare minimum of hardware and is operated in ‘manual mode’ [with] no GPS or auto-levelling assistance [and] with a heavy reliance of the onboard video feed for control, navigation and sampling operations.”

The purpose-built drone overhead a pod of Humpback Whales. (📷: Vanessa Pirotta)

The drone pilot was directed by spotters onboard the research vessel, and the sample dish was remotely opened as the UAV was flown through the densest part of the whale blow to collect the maximum amount of sample in the dish.

Sampling the snot of the Eastern Australian Humpback Whale, by drone. (📷: Geoghegan et al. 2018)

59 different samples of blow from the 19 migrating humpbacks were collected during the study. Despite the small sample, the study lead to the discovery of six new virus species from five different families.

The research is important as the whales serve as “…massive mobile monitors of our ocean health as they travel from the cool feeding waters of Antartica, past the beaches that you and I swim in, and all the way to the warm water of northern Australia, and then all the way back again each and every year as they migrate” says Pirotta.

Pirotta was the overall winner FameLab Australia 2018 with the research, which was published in this month’s issue of “Viruses.”