SHAMU – Aircraft Scouting for Whales

Marine sound pollution, mass beachings, and ship strikes account for a significant number of annual sperm whale deaths. The United Nations now lists sperm whales as vulnerable, and more than 600 studies have predicted that their populations may collapse precipitously within the next three decades. From the conservationist’s view, there is an urgency to study whales, which may help their chances of survival. Cetaceans, such as sperm whales, use clicks for echolocation, a form of sonar, to “see” and communicate underwater. Some cetaceans also use clicks in highly detailed patterns in social behaviour. Some marine biologists believe that these clicks are encoded with communicative information, possibly sonograph images.

Out of this background, James Nestor formed the CETI Foundation (Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative) with the goal to initiate sperm whale click studies. CETI is a developing international team of engineers and conservationists that builds audio and video technologies that deep divers take into the waters among a pod of whales for data recordings. Diving with whales to gather data is CETI’s signature scientific approach. With that data, CETI hopes to “crack the code” of sperm whales’ sophisticated sonographic click communication and test the whales’ response when human designed clicks, premeditated after recorded clicks, are sent back to them. As part of the scientific effort, the team of senior students at the University of Colorado Boulder is designing an aircraft described as an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) to efficiently locate sperm whale pods using novel flying sensor technologies. Some ocean biologists consider the aircraft project as a game changer for their research progress and success.

The motivation for the student project is to help ocean biologists find pods of whales in the open ocean with a special UAS. Our goal is to raise a minimum of $10,000 to design and fly our sensor aircraft to search for and monitor these beautiful creatures; thus facilitating the scientific research on whale-to-whale communication.

What is the project?

The SHAMU team will design the unmanned aerial system in several phases, possibly extending to 3 years of research and development. Ultimately the aircraft shall carry instrument payloads capable of locating sperm whales in the ocean. The winged aircraft launches from the helipad of a research vessel and returns and lands safely on the ship. The unmanned aircraft flies reconnaissance missions and provides a search viewpoint from 1000 ft. altitude. That search capability is much more efficient than binoculars and submersed microphone technologies of limited range. The concept of operations is sketched in the following picture:

Because of the technical challenges, the aircraft design has to be tested first on-shore; i.e. in Colorado. This year’s team (AY 2017-18) will design, build, and test the UAS and address the takeoff/landing challenges and the navigation in a simulated environment setting. Future teams shall improve on our phase 1 results and lessons learned and take the project further to sea-worthy operation in phase 2. Below is a list of our current main requirements and a sketch of the concept of operations for the current first phase of development:

  • Manual takeoff and landing with autonomous cruise flight
  • Take off and land on a stationary 9.1-meter by 9.1-meter simulated helipad area
  • Have a 12 kilometer communication range
  • Support downward facing simulated payload of 2 kilograms
  • Recoverable in winds up to 10 meters per second
  • Have a 100 kilometer ground track