Vanessa Pirotta’s Australian success story has to do with researching whale snot!

Tell us about yourself and your background

I am a PhD student in the Marine Predator Research Group, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. My PhD research is focused on cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) conservation. As part of this, I am looking at emerging technologies such as drones for marine megafauna conservation. I have been involved in whale research in a variety of locations including Australia, Tonga and Antarctica. I love the outdoors and always excited to head offshore as you never know what you might see!

How did you get started in the drone industry?

I have been involved in the drone industry for the last three years. I started working with drone pilot and engineer Alastair Smith from Heliguy (aerial cinematography based company) here in Sydney and since then, I have been very interested in the use of drones for research. Alastair’s expertise transformed my vision of remote sampling from whales into a reality. Since the start of my PhD I have seen a massive growth in drone technology and an increase in drone publications in marine mammal research. It is a really exciting field to be part of.

Tell us about your organization and your role there.

I am a member of the Marine Predator Research Group based at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. I am responsible for the management of my PhD research. I lead our most recent drone research using custom-built drones to collect whale microbiota for an assessment of whale health. This is a major component of my PhD thesis and is a great collaborative project which brings together science, technology and industry.

Industry Experience:

What do you like most about being in the UAV industry?   

I really like seeing new research and innovative projects using drones. I also love being able to collaborate with industry to help answer new research questions using drones.

What’s your favorite type of project and why?

Projects where you can be creative and work towards something that is exciting! That’s exactly how I felt with my PhD research project. We couldn’t find a drone to meet our whale sampling and budget needs, so we designed and built our own! I am so grateful to have been able to be part of such a unique and collaborative (with Heliguy) project.

Do you have a success story you would like to share?

Our whale drone research. This research was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science and is the product of many years hard work. We were able to demonstrate the use our remotely operated flip-lid petri dish onboard our drones to collect whale snot from northward migrating humpback whales off Sydney. The flip-lid help minimize sea water and air contaminates. From this, we created a library of baseline information from at least 48 individuals from the Australian east coast humpback whale population. This project highlights the use of drones as non-invasive research tools for marine mammal research.

 What excites you most about the potential for women in the industry?

It’s great to see women being influential in the industry. It offers encouragement to those who might want to engage with experts for experience and potentially might lead to women pursuing a career with drones.

 What You’ve Learned:

Is there a tip you learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?

Make sure you ask lots of questions and if something is not working, try and find alternative ways to solve it. Make sure you allow extra time for testing of equipment and always have spare drone batteries.


What’s the best way for W&D readers to connect with you? 

Vanessa Pirotta, PhD student, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.
Twitter: @VanessaPirotta

 The Final Word:

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Women and Drones Community?

Be creative and network with others. If you’re interested in the industry, ask questions and volunteer to be part of projects. Experience is a wonderful thing.

Our recent paper:

Pirotta V, Smith A, Ostrowski M, Russell D, Jonsen ID, Grech A and Harcourt R (2017) An Economical Custom-Built Drone for Assessing Whale Health. Front. Mar. Sci. 4:425. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00425


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