Tens of thousands of whales are killed or injured every year as a direct or indirect result of human activities. The health of ocean ecosystems is tied directly to the health of whales. If we continue to lose whales, the results will be disastrous not just for the oceans, but for our entire planet.
We need better technology to understand and document our impact on whales and their habitat. And we need tools that don’t further harm or harass them. And, most importantly, we need YOUR help.
Healthy oceans are critical to humanity’s survival. By supporting Snotbot, you are leaving a legacy for future generations and ultimately helping to preserve Planet Ocean.
We need your help to fund the purchase and construction of new drones, expeditions into the field to collect samples, and data analysis and dissemination. By funding this work you are supporting the development of a new data collection tool that will be easily replicable by others as well as the collection of critical data that is of benefit to whales and ultimately humanity.
What is a Snotbot?
Snotbots are custom-built drones created in partnership between Ocean Alliance and Olin College of Engineering. They hover in the air above a surfacing whale and collect the blow (or snot) exhaled from its lungs. Snotbot then returns that sample back to researchers a significant distance away.
Here is an extended interview with Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr and Sir Patrick Stewart about Snotbot. With your help we can get it into the field where it matters!
Snot? Why snot?
Having a lung lining sample is crucial. With it we can see virus and bacteria loads, analyze DNA, and look for environmental toxins that have been absorbed into the whale’s system. Perhaps most importantly, we can test for levels of hormones, which gives us information on the reproductive cycles and stress levels of these creatures as they are increasingly impacted by human activity in their natural habitats.
In the “BS” era of data collection (Before Snotbot), the standard way of getting a data sample of a whale (living outside captivity) involved chasing an extremely acoustically sensitive mammal with a loud motorboat and subsequently shooting it with a sampling dart from a crossbow.
Imagine if everything your doctor knew about your health came from chasing you around the room with a large needle while blowing an air-horn.The chart would say something like, “elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking.” It's inaccurate. This is what we believe is going on with some of the current whale data due to the invasive nature of previous sampling methods, and with Snotbot we mean to correct it with a clearer picture of whales that are undisturbed.
By using Snotbots, the whale never knows the data is being collected. The custom-built drones fly well above the surface of the water and into the blow, the subjects are never touched or approached closely.
Ideally, whale researchers should be positioned about half a mile away from their subjects, giving the whales plenty of room to go about their business. Dozens of technological hurdles had to be overcome in order to make the drones capable of collecting a physical sample at this distance in an uncontrolled marine environment.
- We had to get them waterproof (and snotproof) yet still able to fly
- They had to be able receive signals and complete the mission with a diverse array of on-board sensors
- Collection systems were developed to produce a scientifically usable sample.
- We built a floating testing rig complete with 3D printed scientifically accurate whale blowholes called Snotshot for realistic at-sea testing.
We crashed a lot of drones in the process (some even on purpose) but wound up with a system we can count on to give us the vital data we need.
Snotbot has received some great coverage in popular STEM publications. Aside from a segment on Discovery's Daily Planet show, we have also been featured in Smithsonian Magazine, Gizmodo, the Boston Globe, Geek.com, io9, Popular Science, Daily Dot, and Engadget. The scientific and engineering worlds have taken notice of us, and for good reason.
Here is where you come in!
At this point we could spend another year or more mired in what we like to call “The Research Industrial Complex.” We'd be chained to our desks, writing grants, and filling out stacks of paperwork with no guarantee of any success in securing the funds we need to get this project accomplished. But with your help we can start collecting this vital data right away.
The way scientists support their research has become collaborative, and we are part of that change. All over the world innovators and researchers are turning to fellow citizens passionate about their subjects to become involved and have access to the results. For those who love whales, the oceans and who believe in minimally invasive research techniques we’re asking you to join up with us. And the best part? When you back our project, you become part of our team. You'll get access to the data we collect in an easy-to-understand report, as well as updates with photos and videos from the field.
This Kickstarter supports three expeditions to sites vital to the future survival of whales on our planet. All are locations where Ocean Alliance has significant experience conducting research and where we feel Snotbot will make the greatest impact on our current understanding of these species.
Peninsular Valdez Patagonia: A unique location where land, sea and air come together, to create enormous biodiversity. The barren landscape belies a sea teeming with life: elephant seals, sea lions, fur seals and of course the southern right whale. Ocean Alliance has been studying them there since the 1970's.
Sea of Cortez: A prime research site for us since 1985, this region is considered a biological nursery for the Pacific due to the density and variety of oceanic wildlife. Fin, Blue, Humpback and Sperm whales found there at different times of the year.
Southeast Alaska / Frederick Sound: Our most enduring research subject the Humpback travels from across the Pacific to Southeast Alaska every summer to feed on the abundance of small fish. The waterway, known as the “Alaska Marine Highway”, is busy with commercial and recreational traffic so any data gathered here will be particularly useful for the health and survival of the species in these waters.
Each location is specifically chosen based on the species that frequent the habitat and drawing from the experience of our previous research expeditions.We are hoping to sample some of the same individual whales we’ve been following for the past 45 years.This will allow us to compare the new, non-invasively gathered evidence to well-established data sets from previous missions. This is where we expect Snotbot to prove our hypothesis that the sampling methodology has a noticeable effect on results, potentially altering our view of these creatures and their stressors.
Ocean Alliance? Who are you guys?
We like to say we're the most significant marine research group you've never heard of. But publicity or no, we've spent the past 44 years using the latest technology to better understand our oceans. In 1967 our founder Roger Payne used underwater microphones to first discover whale sing songs, featured in National Geographic Magazine. You may have seen the album "Songs of the Humpback Whale" - that recording is on the Voyager spacecraft as a greeting to other civilizations from the inhabitants of Earth! We partnered with leading research organizations worldwide, collecting the first ever global expedition to establish a baseline data set on ocean pollution, covered by PBS. Recently we've wrapped up another five years of toxicology research in the Gulf of Mexico documenting the effects of the BP oil disaster. All in all, we've been involved in the production of over 40 documentaries studying whales,
Excited? Welcome Aboard
We have some really cool rewards for backing our project. For instance, our basic whale adoption kits, and 'Whales' IMAX DVDs that are narrated by Patrick Stewart. Some are even signed by the man himself! And it's key to note every donation to our Kickstarter is tax deductible in the U.S.(minus the value of the merchandise)
All pledges to the Snotbot project are tax deductible, minus the fair market value of the reward it contains! We're unable to change the rewards to add this information, but keep that in mind when you're pledging - Ocean Alliance is a verified 501(c)3!
We consider anyone who donates at any level to be on our team and should display the Snotbot mission logo with pride. Backers at all levels will receive updates from our missions and a user-friendly report including the data sets of our findings.
Here's a mockup of some of the rewards we're offering (may be subject to change and/or modification):
Whale art photo suitable for framing:
A message from Ocean Alliance Founder Roger Payne
“Most recent efforts at saving whales have been directed at whaling. But whaling has become a relatively minor problem for whales compared to man-made pollutants, plastic trash, military sonars, oil spills and the noises from the air-guns used in oil exploration. It is time to attack these causes of stress and death for whales, their dolphin cousins and many other ocean species. That cannot be done without knowing more about which problems cause the worst effects. The missing link in finding that out has long been the lack of any way to examine the general health of a whale before and after it has faced such insults. Your contributions will help find that missing information—that missing link. You will help to find unarguable evidence about the effects on ocean life of the problems that humanity is causing. We are after a cure, and accurate diagnosis is the first step to any cure."
Why are we harassing Sir Patrick Stewart?
The principle goal of Snotbot is not only to collect physical data from whales but also to develop new innovative tools to collect it. Sir Patrick happily volunteered to be harassed in order to help tell the story in support of this endeavor. Sir Patrick is a longtime supporter and trustee of Ocean Alliance – even traveling on our research vessel the Odyssey. We can’t thank him enough for his participation in this project. His new series, Blunt Talk, is premiering on August 22nd on Starz. You should watch it, it looks hysterical.
Music: Podington Bear http://www.soundofpicture.com/
At-sea video footage by Eliza Muirhead
Media inquiries and/or questions about the project? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details!
Risks and challenges
Ocean Alliance has undertaken many research missions in the past, including our recent 5 year post-Deepwater Horizon research project in the Gulf of Mexico doing toxicology testing on marine mammals. We’re no strangers to mishaps and setbacks. Bad weather leaving us holed up in cheap hotels instead in the field, broken equipment, angry bears - we’ve seen it all. We have added contingency funds into the budget for extra room and board costs, for additional shipping, and for drones eaten by The Kraken and thus meriting a hasty replacement. We’re excellent at improvising and can turn around almost any sticky situation we face. That being said, there are some potential risks and challenges the Snotbot mission may face and how we plan to overcome them:
-Will we be able to guarantee we can find whales? Yes - we’ve specifically chosen areas we’ve worked in previously, with abundances of whale populations for the species we have chosen. We’re confident here.
-Will we be able to secure the proper research permits? We have decades of experience in this area, and are in communication with permitting officials. Permits are underway for all 3 locations. So far, so good.
-Can we collect the snot? Yes! We created a machine called SnotShot that simulates whale blow using 3D printed spouts, from which we’ve successfully collected liquid mist. People have collected blow from whales in captivity in the past, but obviously, results aren’t the same as in the wild.
-What if you have cost overruns? We have been running international expeditions for over 30 years in 21 countries. We know what it costs to run expeditions large and small, and have pored over our budget, so we don’t anticipate any issues. However, we do have empathetic donors that can step in with emergency funding assistance if the snot hits the quadcopter blades, as the old saying goes. But having a solid budget upfront means not having to take risks and making sure we go into the field with the gear and people we need to get the job done.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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