Drones help solve the problem of, how on earth do you give a whale a medical?

Drones are proving to be a breakthrough in managing the health of Humpback whales, thanks to a team of University of Canterbury scientists.

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Infrared technology is used to measure the mammals’ vital signs. Source: Seven Sharp

In Oceania, the Paikea humpback is still endangered - half a century after whalers nearly wiped it out.

Across all of Polynesia there are only 5-10,000 at most, says University of Canterbury researcher, Associate Professor Travis Horton.

"So they do need our help," he says.

But how on earth do you give a whale a medical?

"You can't take a stethoscope into the ocean," says Mr Horton.

But you can fly a drone above the ocean.

And that's exactly what Mr Horton and his team have been doing, pioneering a groundbreaking way to do whale check-ups.

"It can be applied to other whale populations on the planet, dolphins, marine mammals, all sorts of other species."

So how does a drone become a doctor? By measuring vital signs with infrared.

"From the oscillations in the skin temperature we can extract the heartbeat, you can get a temperature from the blowhole, you can actually see how frequently the blowhole is opening."

Drone check-ups would also be invaluable for whale strandings.

"That could help you develop a priority scheme - 'Save this whale, save that whale... this one's not doing so well.'

"Whales are crucial to the oceans, they move nutrients around, it's the circle of life.

"So saving whales is good for the planet."