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Robots And Right Whales

March 8, 2013

After using cutting-edge technology (for the time) to hunt and slaughter North Atlantic right whales to the brink of extinction, humans are using cutting edge technology to try and save them.

The latest tool in the game is an underwater robot that can hear and find whales, and then transmit their positions in near-real time:

Last month, two 6-foot-long (1.8-meter-long), torpedo-shaped robots from theWoods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts used digital acoustic monitoring equipment to detect 9 North Atlantic right whales(Eubalaena glacialis) in the Gulf of Maine—the first-ever detection of baleen whales from these types of autonomous vehicles.

“Recording the sound creates a spectrogram, which to a scientist is almost like a sheet of music that visually represents the sounds you’re hearing,” explained WHOI researcher Mark Baumgartner.

The gliders process and classify these acoustic signatures, then surface every two hours and transmit evidence of whale calls to shore-based computers while the animals are still nearby. “We can use this information to very quickly draw a circle on the map and say, hey, we know there are whales in this area, let’s be careful about our activities here. The government can then alert mariners and ask them to reduce their speed and post a lookout.”

The effort to save right whales is a battle that pits scientists and conservation groups against all the oceanic intrusions of modern human culture, with its shipping, fishing, and pollution. It is an incredibly close battle, in which single lives count. So every technological wrinkle can make a difference.

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