Cetaceans are hard to keep track of. It’s ironic the largest animals in the world are so difficult to follow, but studying and protecting 90-plus species in 1.39 billion cubic kilometers of ocean is a continuing challenge. Which brings up the possibility of saving whales with satellites.

Sei_whale_mother_and_calf_Christin_Khan_NOAA saving whales with satellites


The Challenge of Knowing Whales

In 1979, Dr. Bruce Mate (now Director of Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute), began a new era by using a radio-frequency (RF) tag transmitting to the international ARGOS satellite system.   While RF tags help enormously, there are ways to make them even more valuable. (photo – Christin Khan, NOAA)

Because tags’ size and therefore power is limited, they must use satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These fast-moving satellites can keep contact with a tag for 15 minutes at best, so the tags only transmit short, repeated messages, usually just GPS location (and only when the whale is surfaced). More capable data-logging tags must be physically retrieved.  Because the large environmental satellites on which ARGOS hitches a ride are few and orbit around the poles, coverage in the critical tropical zone allows gaps of over two hours in connectivity.


A New Approach

One way to attack the problem is to look “downward,” from a space expert’s point of view. A few of us here at the technology and consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton did a pro bono study we called Project Whale/Habitat and Location Environment Smallsats (WHALES). When we talked to the leading American cetologists, we found consensus on a critical need to reduce the gaps in satellite tracking.

We modeled options including a constellation of five small satellites carrying only the ARGOS transponders (about 25kg of electronics and a UHF antenna) in near-equatorial orbit.

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We found our own company had a new software tool, OceanLens™, that could model tracking data from any source in a 3D ocean environment, including tracking and projecting courses, routes, depth, etc., with the viewer choosing any angle, scale, and location if the satellites provided enough data. (image – view from OceanLens™ tracking a single humpback whale. courtesy of Booz Allen Hamilton)

Dr. Ari Friedlaender at the University of California – Santa Cruz provided a data file from a new experimental tag that transmitted the maximum depth during each submerged period along with surface GPS locations, and we converted this into a 3D track of a humpback whale projected on a global model of seafloor terrain.

The experiment included the sound cloud created by a surface ship, so we could see when the sound intersected the whale’s course and at what decibel level.  This kind of software can also incorporate data from inputs like buoys, drones, and hydrophones.

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The movements of whales are of interest not only to the scientific community. In the U.S., naval authorities, fishers, shippers, and others are required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to avoid or minimize the “take” of such mammals, including working to avoid the ship strikes so deadly to populations like the North Atlantic right whale.

Other nations have their own laws, and all have international obligations. There are sometimes-sharp disagreements on the actions needed to deconflict whales and humans, but more data on marine mammals can only help. (image -Pink area is the sound cloud of a research ship.  courtesy of Booz Allen Hamilton)


More Ears In the Sky

We presented a paper to the August 2018 Conference on Small Satellites to solicit ideas from the space industry. This is, we believe, the first-ever presentation of this topic to a space conference outside the specialized ARGOS meetings. Several attendees said, “We didn’t know about this problem,” and we’re following up on contacts and suggestions.

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There is no substitute for having more ARGOS-compatible equipment available to receive signals. Dr. Andres Martinez of NASA is exploring a high-altitude balloon as a vantage point for an ARGOS receiver, while the space-based possibilities include the small-satellite solution mentioned above, exploring ways to put ARGOS equipment on more satellites, or resizing the ARGOS-compatible equipment for microsatellites (a French project called ANGELS is in progress).  All these take time and money, but initial modeling shows all (or a mix) could be valid approaches. (OceanLens image -courtesy of Booz Allen Hamilton)


Charting a Course

Dr. Martinez and NASA launched an Ideation Challenge, awarding up to $5,000 for ways to improve wildlife tracking, offering opportunities for school groups and students to approach the topic. The challenge closed in November, and awardees will be announced in December.

The next steps for our project include searching for partners to help support more thorough modeling, cost analysis, etc., and devise a pilot program in connection with one of the involved government/scientific organizations. We hope to find more venues, including cetacean conferences, to talk about this, and the software is available for a free demo to interested organizations.

The problem is as vast as the oceans. The dedicated scientists, technicians, and volunteers who tag the whales and analyze the data, though, can use all the assistance they can get. The whales aren’t going to cooperate, so it’s up to us.


REFERENCES for Saving Whales with Satellites

Full Team:

WHALES: Matt Bille, Study Director: Chris Round, Steve Brune, Laurie Baker, Dr. Kirk Borne. Contact: Matt Bille, 719-387-3915, bille_matt@bah.com

OceanLens™ : Rachel Dendiu, Ian Byrnes. Contact: Rachel Dendiu, 256-799-2847, Dendiu_rachel@bah.com

Cetologists interviewed for Project WHALES (does not imply endorsement): Robert Pitman and Trevor Joyce, NOAA NMFS; Robin Baird, Cascadia Research Institute; Bruce Mate, Oregon State Marine Mammal Laboratory; Ari Friedlaender and Ben Weinstein, University of California Santa Cruz.

Smallsat paper: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/smallsat/2018/all2018/286/

Sponsor: www.boozallen.com. Booz Allen Hamilton reviewed and approved this submission.


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