Researchers from the Vancouver Aquarium and the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have begun using drones to keep tabs on endangered killer whales off the west coast of the continent. The technology is giving the researchers a fresh perspective on the well-being of the animals, and provides yet another example of how UAVs are giving rise to new means of conservation.

Armed with a custom-built marine hexacopter, the researchers were able to monitor the status of the protected Northern Resident killer whales and the endangered Southern Resident species.

The drone tracked the whales from an altitude of 100 ft (30 m), a distance that puts it out of the whale's earshot, and collected 30,000 photographs across 60 separate flights. While the scientists are still in the process of poring over this wealth of data, they are already beginning to see the benefits of their new approach.

"The hexacopter gives us a more sensitive metric of the whales’ condition than we’ve previously had,” says Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Senior Marine Mammal Scientist at Vancouver Aquarium. “Killer whales can buffer short-term lack of food by living on their blubber, and substituting water into their blubber layer, so they camouflage it when they are in poor condition. From above, we can observe and assess their girth, and know much earlier when they are in trouble."

Other early observations include a number of pregnancies which would have otherwise gone undetected, and the identification of whales with unhealthy body conditions. The team says that the findings and assessments that follow will help determine the management of both populations.

The project marks the first time a hexacopter has been used in whale research, but follows in the footsteps of other drone-inspired conservation efforts around the globe – from preserving ailing rhino populations in Africa to hunting down invasive weeds in Australia and curtailing the illegal fishing degrading Belize's reef systems.

"Photogrammetry using a hexacopter is an important new tool," says Barrett-Lennard. "It’s going to change the way we do field research on whales."

You can get a drone's eye view of the killer whales in the Vancouver Aquarium video below.