Researchers at Griffith University are using remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) to film the breathing patterns of humpback whales to help understand the frequency of respiratory infections in the mammals.
The RPA, often referred to as drones, are a part of a wider research effort to understanding why the health of whales is deteriorating, with many stranded whales reported to be underweight and photographed with skin infections.
‘Similar to humans, whales can get a flu or cold’, says Dr Jan-Olaf Meynecke, talking to news site Mashable. ‘They are signs of a weak immune system and can tell us a great story about whale health,’ he said.
Using a DJI Phantom—a relatively cheap consumer drone—Meynecke first launched the RPA in June from Stradbroke Island, off Queensland’s coast.
‘Researchers have been using drones before but they relied on very expensive equipment,’ he says. ‘My aim was to enable the collection of whale blow with the most basic technology available.’
This isn’t the first time drones have been used to gain a different perspective on the on our aquatic counterparts. YouTube Channel Dolphin Safari captured spectacular images of dolphin and whale stampedes off the coast of California and Hawaii using a similar low-cost consumer drone.
But as Flight Safety Australia reported back in July 2012, aircraft operators of any type need to be aware of exclusion zones when operating near whales. If you’re interested in an aerial perspective of protected marine life, be aware that the NSW Environment and Heritage website states that there is a strict no-fly zone of 500 m (1650 ft) for hovering aircraft and 300 m (1000 ft) for fixed wing.
Those who need to get closer to whales and dolphins in Commonwealth waters to carry out research can apply for a permit to do so.
These guidelines are also reaffirmed in Australia’s National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005, which states that ‘a person operating any airborne craft (must) not fly lower than 300 m…and avoid flying directly over a whale or dolphin’.
The Commonwealth, states and territories agreed to introduce consistent regulations for marine mammal protection in all jurisdictions so the same rules apply across Australia. These regulations are contained in the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009.