In the following Q & A with CWR’s Dr. Michael Weiss, we learn what it’s like to fly a drone over top of whales and the new knowledge gained from the captured video footage.
Photographs and video © Copyright 2021 Center for Whale Research.
Southern Resident orcas J22, J51, and J58 chasing salmon in Georgia Strait (2021).
1. Do you launch and fly the Center for Whale Research unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—drone—from a boat? Is the boat stationary or moving? How far are you from the orcas?
We have two CWR drones that we use. The Matrice 600 is far too large to safely launch and recover from our small research vessel. The Phantom 4 Pro V2 is much smaller and lightweight, and we regularly launch it from our research vessel. We always put the boat in neutral before launching and recovering the aircraft. But once it’s in the air, we slowly motor to parallel the whales, usually from 200 and 400 yards away.
2. It must be very challenging to land the drone on the research boat. What does it land on? Do you only fly the drone under specific weather conditions?
It can be tough to land the drone on the boat. The drone does a great job of compensating for the wind. It can’t automatically compensate for how the currents move the boat around, which is where the human pilot comes in. We don’t actually land the vessel directly on any surface in the boat; instead, we have a team member (decked out in safety gear) catch the drone in the air as the pilot brings it in. For safety, we never fly in winds over 10 knots (nautical miles per hour)—11.5 mph—and to protect the equipment, we don’t fly in the rain.
We don’t actually land the vessel directly on any surface in the boat; instead, we have a team member (decked out in safety gear) catch the drone in the air as the pilot brings it in.
3. Have CWR drone pilots crashed any drones? In the water?
Nope! We’re pretty careful with our equipment, especially when we’re anywhere near whales. And hopefully, we won’t ever have to deal with a crash landing.
4. The Aerial Observation Study page of WhaleResearch.com says that a drone doesn’t disturb the whales. Have you seen any signs of them noticing the drone?
We don’t see much indication that the whales notice the drone and have never observed any behavior change coinciding with the drone approaching the whales. There are some rolling behaviors under the surface that could be the whales taking a look up at the drone, but it’s hard to say for sure. If they are looking at the aircraft, they’re taking a peak and continuing on normally afterward.
5. How many minutes or hours of video footage do you record during one flight? How long can a flight last? Do you undertake more than one flight during an orca encounter?
We use high-capacity batteries in our drones, but even then, flights usually only last for 15 to 25 minutes with our smaller vessel-based drone, and sometimes just over half an hour with the larger drone. How much of this time is spent actually filming whales depends on how quickly we can locate the whales and how much time the whales are spending close to the surface where we can observe them. We’re very good at changing batteries quickly, so we can get right back up in the air when batteries run low. We’ll get between an hour and two hours of footage when filming from a boat on an average day with the Southern Residents.
The unmanned aerial vehicle DJI Phantom 4 RTK v2 is launched from the
Center for Whale Research’s research vessels.
6. Can you see the orcas’ behaviors on a monitor of some type while the drone’s video camera is recording?
We have a monitor that allows the pilot to observe a live feed of what the drone’s camera is seeing. This helps us get in a good filming position and make sure the whales aren’t negatively reacting to the drone. This gives us a pretty good idea of what’s going on. But the more subtle behaviors can only really be picked up later when we view the video on large screens.
7. What is the reach of the video camera’s zoom lens?
Our main goal is to film entire subgroups of whales interacting and behaving together, so we don’t need a ton of zoom on the lens. The primary way we adjust how wide an area we see is by changing the altitude and angle of viewing the whales. Higher altitudes and shallower angles mean we can see larger areas. Angles closer to looking straight down and low altitudes give us a more detailed look.
The primary way we adjust how wide an area we see is by changing the altitude and angle of viewing the whales.
8. What are a few of the most exciting things that you’ve learned so far from watching orcas from overhead?
The first thing that strikes me when watching killer whales from overhead is how integral social touch and interaction are to their lives. Even during periods where, from the surface, we might think they’re “resting” or “traveling,” there are tons of socializing happening just out of view. We’ve always known killer whales are highly social, but I think the extreme degree of sociality is just absolutely striking.
Drone footage of Southern Resident orcas pursuing salmon (2021).
9. Have you dispelled any previously-held assumptions or beliefs about Southern Resident orca behavior? Any significant surprises or extraordinary moments?
I don’t know if we’ve dispelled any beliefs, but we’ve certainly made some interesting findings and observations that give a deeper look at killer whale society. We’ve known for a long time that maternal kinship—family relationships along maternal lines—was important for killer whale social structure, but the drone has shown us that there’s a lot more happening. The age and sex of whales influence who they make friends with and their position in their social network. We’ve also seen some incredible individual moments that we haven’t been able to piece together yet: whales babysitting non-relatives, potentially delaying eating salmon to help “teach” younger individuals, and maybe some exchange of prey sharing for babysitting services.
10. WhaleResearch.com also says that CWR’s FAA-certified drone pilots have flown 180 research flights totaling 60 hours of flying time. What’s still to be learned from additional drone flights?
The drone project can give us continued insight into these whales’ social structure and how it might respond to environmental change (like change in salmon abundance) or demographic turnover (like the loss of key post-reproductive females), and potentially help give early warning signs of significant changes in the population. Understanding the patterns of contacts in the population as a whole may also someday provide us with insight into how diseases spread in this threatened population. Finally, many of the interactions we’re interested in—like prey sharing and aggression—are relatively rare. We’re going to need a lot more data to investigate how these interactions are structured.
Dr. Michael Weiss has worked in Southern Resident orca research and education for ten years. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Exeter in 2020. His current research work centers around developing statistical methods for analyzing orca social structures using CWR’s long-term ORCA SURVEY dataset and gaining new insights into orca behavior from studying drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) footage of the whales. Dr. Weiss recently led a team of researchers to complete: Age and sex influence social interactions, but not associations, within a killer whale pod published in May 2021 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Bigg’s orcas, T37As, during CWR Encounter #50 on August 9, 2021.
Are you a Center for Whale Research MEMBER? Membership donations provide financial support to our organization, helping us continue our five decades of scientific studies while speaking out on behalf of the struggling Southern Resident orcas.