Student Research Drone Project May Save Whales

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A student-led research team is taking the drone concept to the high seas to save beleaguered sperm whales.

Search and Help Aquatic Mammals UAS (SHAMU – yes like the famous whale) is a 11-person project team comprised of University of Colorado Boulder aerospace-engineering students.

The project – a part of the student team’s senior-design course requirement  — has launched a crowdfunding effort to build a drone system that can fly near sperm whales and gather data using advanced sensors.

Sperm whales are listed as a vulnerable species and face deadly threats from mass-beaching events, ship collisions and sound pollution (since the whales use sonic waves to communicate). Several studies project a species-wide calamity within the next 30 years.

The student proposal describes the project’s scope:

“Ultimately the aircraft shall carry instrument payloads capable of locating sperm whales in the ocean. The winged aircraft launches from the helipad of a research vessel and returns and lands safely on the ship. The unmanned aircraft flies reconnaissance missions and provides a search viewpoint from a 1,000 feet altitude. That search capability is much more efficient than binoculars and submersed microphone technologies of limited range.”

Specifications include:

  • Manual takeoff and landing with autonomous cruise flight;
  • Take off and land on a stationary 9.1-meter by 9.1-meter simulated helipad area
  • Have a 12 kilometer communication range
  • Support downward facing simulated payload of 2 kilograms
  • Recoverable in winds up to 10 meters per second
  • Have a 100 kilometer ground track

The team hopes to reach a funding target of $10,000 to purchase aircraft materials, fuselage, a drone propulsion system and military-grade audio-visual arrays.

Drones have increasingly become valuable in marine biology research:

  • Last year, Intel recently announced a partnershipwith Parley for the Oceans and Oceans Alliance to deploy Project Snotbot – a marine biology research project that allows drones to capture whale mucous from the blow hole as an indicator of the mammal’s overall health.
  • In 2016, Fathom, a Michigan-based start-up, launched development of an aquatic, football-shaped drone with a model that can connect with a smart device to gather video or images underwater.
  • In 2015, Search Systems Ltd., a leading UAV manufacturer in the UK, developed the Mariner 600, an unmanned multicopter with aquatic landing capability and interchangeable aerial and marine camera views.



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