The hexacopter — which is about the size of a beach ball — was used by scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium and U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fly 60 missions off northern Vancouver Island in August. The unmanned aerial vehicle took more than 30,000 photos of the threatened northern resident orca population.
While information from the summer research trip is still being evaluated, the aquarium announced Monday that researchers hope to address several significant gaps in knowledge about the killer whales' growth, health and behaviour.
The pictures allowed researchers to identify several previously undetected pregnancies and health issues in the population, and they even noticed one of the orcas was missing while the photos were being taken.
"For me, this is an entirely new perspective and is very exciting. It's just like, you know, opening my eyes to a different view of the whales," said Lance Barrett-Lennard, a scientist at the aquarium.
"Seeing them from above, we see them going down, we see them coming up and we see a lot more of their behaviour than we do when we're watching them horizontally from a boat."
Barrett-Lennard said killer whales can live briefly on their blubber, buffering a short-term lack of food and camouflaging their poor physical condition.
Observing from above, researchers can assess their girth and know far earlier that the whales may be experiencing health troubles, added Barrett-Lennard.
The drone was mounted with a camera and deployed by hand from the research vessel, Skana, about 150 metres away from the orcas.
It then flew about 30 metres above the killer whales, taking photos and video.
The aquarium said the drone captured images of 77 different northern resident orcas, as well as five transient killer whales.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada issued special permits and certificates for the flights of the APH-22, which is owned by the U.S. agency.
"We didn't see any behavioural reactions from the whales at all," said Barrett-Lennard, adding researchers wanted to use the drone on the northern residents before using them on the southern resident killer whales, which are listed as endangered.
"We were very encouraged. We could fly it over the whales (with) no discernable reaction, whatsoever."