Conservation Featured

How CU Boulder drone will track and crack hidden language of sperm whales

The University of Colorado Boulder’s Search and Help Aquatic Mammals UAS (SHAMU) aerospace engineering student team is raising funds for a project that will facilitate scientific research on sperm whale communication patterns. 

Through a partnership with scientists from the Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative (CETI), SHAMU will design, fabricate and operate an unmanned aerial system (UAS) to locate pods of whales in the open ocean. The winged drone, scheduled to launch off a scientific research vessel for the first time this summer, will be able to scout for surfacing whales in excess of 6.2 miles on either side of a ship, and return and land safely on the ship.

CETI co-founder Professor Emeritus Jean N. Koster of the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department offered the capstone senior design project to CU Boulder students. After initiating its effort with United Nations Sustainable Development Program support, CETI hopes the broader study, which aims to record whale vocalizations, can help crack the code of sperm whale communication. 

Because sperm whales rely on a system of clicks for echolocation, decoding their “language” could help conservationists protect whale populations from threats caused by noise pollution in the oceans. 

Guided by faculty advisor and Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Teaching Professor Donna Gerren, the SHAMU team works in partnership with senior students at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The long-distance collaboration will give students marketable experience designing engineering systems in delocalized groups. 

After securing partial funding through the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department, SHAMU has set a final goal of $10,000 for the endeavor.

The full phase-one UAS, equipped with launch and landing systems, is anticipated to require a budget of $8,000. SHAMU is also seeking $2,000 to allow some CU Boulder students to join their Naval Academy peers for ship-based testing this summer.

Learn more about the project or support the team with a tax-deductible donation.

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