Drone gets up close to orcas, capturing a wealth of data

VANCOUVER — An experimental project using a customized drone to monitor killer whales on B.C.’s north coast has been expanded to include the endangered southern resident population shared with the U.S. in the Salish Sea.

The Vancouver Aquarium announced Wednesday it has teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the research project.

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The hexacopter drone weights just over one kilogram, has six motors and six propellers for stability and redundancy, and uses a pressure altimeter and high-resolution camera to determine the width and length of whales.

The results are used to estimate the health and condition of whales, including potential pregnancies, as well as population numbers in relationship with the success of salmon runs.

Both resident populations of killer whales on the B.C. coast prefer chinook salmon.

NOAA researcher John Durban explained during a news conference at the aquarium that the drone — flying 30 metres above the whales — can make calculations accurate to a few centimetres. “We can get very precise measurements,” he said.

The project started in 2014 with the drone flying about 13 hours and 80 kilometres documenting northern resident killer whales on B.C.’s north coast.

This year, the flying effort increased to about 24 hours and 150 kilometres with northern residents, and 23 hours and 150 kilometres with southern residents.

The plan is to fly two three-week periods with the southern residents and one three-week period with the northern residents in 2016.

“When you look at them from above, you see they’re spending most of their time swimming so close together they could touch,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, the aquarium's whale researcher.

“This is something they want to do, how they maintain social bonds. It makes them look very fragile, in a way. When you see them in that kind of proximity for reassurance and contact, they cease to be these great big black-and-white things that can eat anything in the ocean to being these fragile animals we really do have to care for.”

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