Recommended by colleague (Steven Dawson) who used this LiDAR on another project.
“When you relying heavily on a piece of equipment, especially electronics, it’s really great to have a consistent person you can ask questions, who understands your project and is there to support you – and with whom you can build rapport.”
“I found it very easy to compare models on the website – easy to see the benefits of one model over another.”
The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with less than 400 remaining. North Atlantic Right whales are baleen whales, feeding on copepods (tiny crustaceans) by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates, which act like a sieve.
By the early 1890s, commercial whalers had hunted Right whales in the Atlantic to the brink of extinction. Whilst whaling is no longer a threat, human interactions still present the greatest danger to this species. Entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the leading causes of North Atlantic Right whale mortality. Another concern is the effect of climate change and changes in ocean currents which is thought to affect both the quality and quantity of their available prey – tiny copepods. Increasing ocean noise levels from human activities are also a concern, since the noise may interfere with Right Whale communication and increase their stress levels.
Whilst the North Atlantic Right whale is an endangered species – there is currently no way to gauge the overall health of the population of whales – without waiting for them to die or to produce calves. When the objective of having this data is to assist with whale conservation programs, time is against us.
Gina Lonati is a PHD student at the University of New Brunswick under the supervision of Dr Kim Davies in the department of Biological Sciences at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. Gina’s journey to try and address this problem began when she had a conversation with a colleague, Dr. Michael Moore from the Biological Sciences department at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who has been doing a lot of thinking about whale health for a very long time. During their discussion they started to bounce around the idea that drones could be used to get the body temperature of whales using thermal imaging, this presented a really exciting research opportunity as you can collect a lot of data from whales using a drone. Which you wouldn’t be able to collect from a vessel or plane and it would be a much higher resolution – as you could get much closer to the whale than you would using a plane.
Upfront Gina wants to acknowledge that she is definitely not the first to use drones (or even a drone with a laser altimeter onboard) to study whales. As a point of fact, a lot of current research uses drones to collect “blow samples” by flying a drone through the cloud of vapor that a whale exhales collecting the mucus and the microbiome of the whales. However, Gina is taking the idea further – so that she not only uses the visible spectrum cameras on drones, but also to use thermal cameras or thermal infrared cameras to get other health metrics. This research into whale health could build on our knowledge of the North Atlantic Right Whale and assist with conservation efforts in the region.
The University of New Brunswick has a dual gimbal DJI matrice 210, V2 drone which Gina has set up with an RGB high resolution camera using the visible spectrum and then a thermal infrared camera, GPS, IMU and the LightWare SF11/C LiDAR for altimetry, hovering and landing.
Her plan for her research, which is due to kick off in June 2021, will be to fly the drone at a consistent 10 meters above the ocean, when a pod of North Atlantic Right Whales has been spotted from her research vessel. To achieve a consistent altitude above the water and accurate attitude data Gina has chosen to use the SF11/C LiDAR. She has found that the existing drone barometer is easily affected by humidity and has proven to be less accurate. Accurate altitude measurement is important for Gina’s research as she needs to know the exact altitude of the drone when obtaining temperature estimates of the whale’s blow holes via the drone’s thermal infrared camera. This data will allow her to account for the effects of altitude, humidity, and other environmental factors on the accuracy of temperature estimates. In her pre-research test flights, the SF11/C has performed really well, which is not altogether surprising given that she was given a recommendation to use the LightWare SF11/C LiDAR by another colleague (Stephen M. Dawson, Department of Marine Science, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand) who successfully used the SF11/C on a drone in a similar application!
The RGB high resolution camera will capture images at 1 second intervals as soon as the drone is directly above the whale. The idea of the research is that when the whale comes up to the surface, and exhales and opens its blowhole, the infrared camera will photograph inside the blowhole and get an indication of the whale’s internal body temperature. Conventional photography will also be done in order to measure the whales length vs width – allowing Gina to calculate the index of its body condition. She plans to gather simultaneous video, photographic images and infrared photometry so she can start to work out if changes in the blowhole temperature are related to changes in body condition. For example, is a really skinny whale warmer or colder than a fat whale? How does variation in the thickness blubber relate to overall whale health? And what does that say about the health of the individual vs that of the pod?
In conducting this research, Gina hopes to develop a new way to monitor and learn about the health of the North Atlantic Right Whale and other large whales for that matter. This research is to give us insight into the health and potential of each individual whale that’s currently in the population to survive and reproduce based on information she plans to gather relating to the whale’s body condition. This can then be used in future conservation efforts.
*The whales photographed are not in fact North Atlantic Right Whales – they are Humpbacks photographed during drone testing.
** All photographs provided courtesy of Gina Lonati at University of New Brunswick, Saint John