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These flying robots protect endangered wildlife

SnotBot is on a mission. The toaster-sized drone flies over the open ocean, directly above a rare sei whale. On a boat nearby, Andy Rogan beams with joy. He’s been studying whales his entire career, but had never seen this species.

Rogan is a marine biologist with Ocean Alliance, an organization based in Gloucester, Mass. Right now, though, he’s on an expedition near the Azores — islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

All of a sudden, whuffff! The giant whale sends up a cloud of snot. It completely soaks the hovering drone.

Rogan cheers. That’s exactly what his team hoped would happen. SnotBot has a petri dish on board. Now, that dish contains sei whale snot, also known as whale blow. “Sometimes it smells sort of fishy,” says Rogan. “[It] has the consistency of water. It’s more like seawater than slime.” So maybe it’s not as gross as human boogers. But it does contain mucus. And the DNA in that mucus can give scientists important information about whales.

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