Iain Kerr

“I felt like I was a lottery winner. The first time I flew a drone over a whale, I felt like I might’ve been that person who first looked down a microscope and saw a living cell. You know cells exist, but to actually see the cell, to think about what that means.”

Iain Kerr. 

THis Week’s Key Question

“Can Drones Democratize Research and Data Collection of our Oceans?”

This Week’s Guests

Dr. Iain Kerr is CEO of Ocean Alliance, a non-profit organization with a mission to protect whales and their ocean environment through research, scientific collaboration, public education, and the arts.  For almost 40 years, Ocean Alliance has made a positive difference in this world. Their staff works to carry out its mission with scientific integrity to help protect and preserve the marine environment on which the lives of all of us, people as well as whales, are utterly dependent.

Iain began his career at Ocea n Alliance as a volunteer and has grown with the organization over the last 30 years. He is listed as author on over 35 scientific papers and has ensured that Ocean Alliance messages reach the general public through international television and films. Iain has led international conservation research efforts across the globe. As a result of exposing illegal sea cucumber fishing in the Galapagos, Iain received the SOS Grand Blue award in 1994. He was awarded the Chevron Conservation Award in 2006 and in 2014 the Annenberg Foundation listed Iain as one of 25 visionary leaders.

In 2013, Iain recognized that drones could be the future of whale research and conservation. During an attempt to collect samples from a whale, he was sprayed by whale’s blow hole. This chance encounter set him on a quest to develop a way that a drone collect whale samples expended through their blow holes.  This ultimately let to the creation of the Snot Bot and a opened the door to a new type of whale research, one that democratizes data, enabling groups throughout the world to conduct research and collect data on marine mammals that they would not be able to do using expensive research vessels.

What We Learn

Iain talks about Ocean Alliance, the evolution of the Snot Bot and how drones can spur more research of our oceans, which ultimately impacts the entire ecosystem of the world. 

In This Episode

  • Introduction. Ocean Alliance was founded nearly 40 years ago by Roger Payne, who is still the President. The organization has dedicated itself to studying marine life, in particular, whales.  The organization’s slogan is “healthy whales, healthy oceans, healthy humans” reflecting a strong belief in the interconnectedness of species.  It’s important, not only for whale survival, but also for human survival.  
  • Save the Whales. Ocean Alliance is responsible for the Save The Whales movement of the late 70’s.  Roger became friends with Carl Sagan, who at the time was putting recordings on as gold record, to be attached to the Voyager satellite to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.  A recording of a whale singing was added to the record.  Roger also became friends with Leonard Nimoy and they collaborated on an album that featured narration to the sounds of whales.  In 1986, the movie, “Star Trek: The Voyage Home” featured a storyline where the crew has to return to Earth’s past to find a humpback whale so that its sounds can stop a rogue spacecraft from destroying the planet.
  • State of Whales (and the Ocean). Whales used to have a singular threat – fishing. Today, while whale fishing has significantly declined, the health of the mammals is threatened by a variety of ecological and biological conditions.  Marine biologists take DNA samples of whales to monitor their health.  But this is an expensive operation, requiring large boats and many days at sea.
  • The Promise of Drones.  In 2013, Iain began experimenting with drones, mostly as a personal hobby.  While trying to obtain a sample from a whale, using a special crossbow and a dart, he was caught in the spray of a whales blow hole.  It gave him an idea – what if a drone could fly through the spray and collect samples of the whale’s snot.  The idea of the SnotBot was born.  But it required funding to translate the idea into a viable tool.  Thanks to screen and stage actor, Sir Patrick Stewart, who donated to fund a Kickstarter campaign, the Ocean Alliance team produced the SnotBot, which radically changed the world of marine science and data collection.
  • Democratization of Science.  Prior to the SnotBot, obtaining a DNA sample from a whale required an expensive boat, a qualified team and many days at sea.  Only large organizations have the resources for that type of research.  But drones are some much less expensive, maybe around $1,500 for a really good drone and equipment.  The sensors and the altitude of the drone can reduce the time at sea. All of which allow smaller organizations, and even individuals the access to conduct their own research.  Drones are easy to use, field friendly, user friendly, scalable and replicable.  As the ease of use and access grows, the amount of data collected will increase, thereby expanding our understanding of these mammals and their ocean environment.
  • Xponential 2020. Ian will be speaking at Xponential 2020 on October 5-8.  His presentation is entitled, “SnotBot – Drone’s for Conservation.  For more information check out www.xponential.org.
  • Closing.  Iain closes by encouraging researchers and enthusiasts to push forward with their ideas, no matter how much it goes against the grain. And to seek ways to increase data collection for all.

Mentioned Links


SnotBot View

View of two whales from the SnotBot

Leonard Nimoy

Roger Payne far Left, Paul Winter in the middle and Leonard Nimoy far right.