Studying any kind of animal without disturbing it can pose a lot of challenges. Just ask those guys who dress up like pandas in order to keep panda cubs from becoming accustomed to humans in Chinese nature reserves.

When it comes to studying whales, collecting data on their wellbeing and stress levels can be even more difficult. For a long time, the methods used were to either examine a dead one, approach a live whale in a boat and dart it to retrieve skin and blubber samples, or attempt to collect samples of a whale’s blow using a long pole. All options were expensive, complicated, and at times even dangerous.

To solve these problems, scientists and roboticists working with the Ocean Alliance have turned to drone technology. The SnotBot program is now paving the way for non-invasive whale research using consumer-sized drones. With petri dishes attached to the vehicle, the SnotBot can adeptly collect whale blow as a whale comes up for air and exhales through its blowhole. The SnotBot is also equipped with cameras and microphones to collect a broad spectrum of other valuable data.

Whale blow (aka whale snot) is an amazing resource for whale research. Within its contents are a treasure trove of indicators, including a whale’s DNA, pregnancy hormones, ketones (related to metabolism, they give researchers information about energetics and health), and stress hormones.

Snotbots have been sent out by the Ocean Alliance to study whales in Patagonia, the Sea of Cortez, and near Alaska. You can see how it all works below: