The 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place over the weekend, but one new high-tech babysitter was not featured in Las Vegas. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has developed underwater robots to find, track, and protect baleen whales in the Gulf of Maine, particularly the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.
Between mid-November and early-December, the torpedo-shaped gliders located nine right whales, empowering regulators to institute a voluntary speed restriction in the area to decrease the threat of boat strikes. This represents the first time an autonomous vehicle has successfully detected and reported the location of baleen whales.
Right whales were one of the first species to be dramatically affected by commercial whaling, and remain one of the most critically endangered species of whales, with less than 400 individuals in the North Atlantic population. While whales can get caught as bycatch in commercial fisheries, run-ins with ships account for one third of all right whale deaths, so the ability to warn boats of their proximity is an important component of their continued protection.
Normally, such warnings and speed restrictions rely on human sightings from boats or low-flying planes, which are high-cost methods and require clear weather, or stationary underwater microphones that are only effective if the whales come close to them. These new autonomous robots can find the whales under water, and they surface every two hours to transmit the information they have collected to land-based computers.
Currently, the gliders are programmed to differentiate between right whales, humpbacks, fin whales, and sei whales, though new sound profiles could be added in the future to increase the flexibility of the robots. They also collect environmental information, including water temperature, salinity levels, and the abundance of zooplankton, microscopic animals that form the base of the right whale’s diet. Simply locating the whales is critical for science and conservation, and the collection of this additional information provides further opportunities to improve our understanding of these often elusive and highly endangered creatures.