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Hansen Johnson – a PhD student at Dalhousie University – is working on a new way to take whale skin samples using drones. 

He is developing the technique as part of a whale aerial sampling platform, or WASP, to remove the usual barriers of getting up close and personal with whales. “The motivation comes from a lot of previous field work, which relies on operating small vessels around the animals. Not only is getting close to whales logistically complicated, it can also be dangerous for the animals and the people operating the equipment.” 

Hansen’s goal with WASP is remove the small vessel requirement entirely, and the logistical challenges/risks with it, making activities such as whale genetic and health analysis much easier and safer. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the team from completing important field tests last year – the next step in the project plan. Hansen said the delays are particularly challenging due to the limited window for testing/deployment. “We need to find that special window when the whales are in the right place at the right time. We missed that window last year.” 

Hansen is hopeful that field testing will be able to continue this year, and allow the team to get back on track.