Chris Zadra

Chris Zadra '16 '17G uses a drone called SnotBot in a groundbreaking project to capture whale blow for biological analysis.

Chris Zadra '16 '17G Flies Drones for Whale Research

Zadra turned his engineering acumen, entrepreneurial spirit and interest in drones into a life-changing career with the Drones for Whale Research program.

Photography by

Christa Neu

Chris Zadra is helping to save the planet, one whale at a time. Zadra flies drones that collect data on whales as part of a critical mission to protect the giants of the ocean from environmental and human threats. He uses a drone called SnotBot® in a groundbreaking project to capture whale blow for biological analysis. And he may be the only person in the world using drones to drop data tags onto the backs of whales to gather unprecedented insight into how whales live.

Zadra turned his engineering acumen, entrepreneurial spirit and longtime interest in drones into a life-changing career as program manager for the Drones for Whale Research program of Ocean Alliance, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit whose motto is “Save the Whales, Save the Oceans, Save Ourselves.”

Whales are crucial to the world—and not just because they are magnificent creatures. Says Zadra: “A lot of people don’t realize the importance of whales to climate change. Whales capture a huge amount of carbon from the atmosphere because they are so massive. And through eating and pooping, they help to fertilize phytoplankton, which captures carbon and produces the oxygen we breathe. The amount of potential positive impact on humans in the form of improved climate from having more whales is massive.”

Zadra’s path to Ocean Alliance was serendipitous. While at Lehigh, he built and flew drones as a hobby. At Lehigh, he met Dan Levy, who now works at a drone start-up in California. When Ocean Alliance wanted to purchase some of the company’s drones, Levy joined its expedition to Mexico to test the drone. There, Iain Kerr, the CEO of Ocean Alliance, asked Levy if he knew anyone who might be interested in working in the new drone program at the nonprofit.

Chris Zadra

Levy contacted Zadra, who received a bachelor's in applied science in 2016 and a master’s of engineering in technical entrepreneurship in 2017 from Lehigh. Not long after that conversation in 2018, Zadra moved from California to Ocean Alliance’s oceanside home of Gloucester to fly drones over whales.

He says he didn’t have any special interest in whales before getting the job. What he was interest- ed in, however, was not working at a desk. To say he met his goal is an understatement. Zadra now travels the globe in search of whales to study. He has flown drones in Mexico, British Columbia, the Azores, Puget Sound, Gabon and more.

In the past 10 years, drones have become a critical tool in the effort to study and protect whales. Before using drones, Ocean Alliance and other organizations collected biological samples from whales primarily by chasing them in a boat and shooting them with biopsy darts. It is a costly, time-consuming and invasive technique.

Then came SnotBot.

“Iain will tell the story that he was coming up close to a whale and the whale does a big blow and he gets covered in all this whale blow,” Zadra says. “That was the genesis of the idea. He thought, ‘If there’s all this stinky, smelly stuff, there must be biological data in there that we could get, instead of from biopsy samples.’”

Zadra says Kerr spent five years refining the collection method, an uncomplicated system in which petri dishes are attached to 3-D printed arms with Velcro. When Zadra arrived, he became chief drone flyer. “The whale doesn’t even know that we’re there,” Zadra says.

The collected data gets analyzed by partner universities and labs, which continue to develop more sophisticated methodology to analyze whale blow. Researchers across the world are now using drones to collect blow.

Zadra also puts his engineering skills to work coming up with new ways to use drones for research. “Every year, we try one thing and see where it leads.”

Most recently, it led to the tagging system, similar to SnotBot in its simplicity. “We ended up with a 3-D printed lawn dart that can hold a tag,” says Zadra. “We drop it from the drone at a certain height and it attaches to the whale with a suction cup.” The tags are designed to fall off after a certain length of time and get collected for analysis.

“It’s like putting an iPhone on the back of a whale,” Zadra says. “If you’re studying whales without tags, all that you are seeing is the 10% of their life when they surface. But most of their life is spent underwater—feeding and socializing and traveling.”

Zadra has studied many whale species. He first tested data tagging with a drone in Mexico on the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet. He studies the endangered North Atlantic right whales, which feed every year in Massachusetts and get caught in fishing gear and lobster traps. There are only 350 left in the world.

Zadra’s background may be in engineering, but he is now a scientist, environmentalist, boat mechanic and boat captain. There’s just one problem—he gets seasick. But, he says, motion sickness medicine works wonders.

Read about more of Lehigh's community of Future Makers here.

Story by Jodi Duckett

Photography by

Christa Neu

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