Work in progress: Think of it as a kind of fitbit for whales

Dave Hass Ph.D. candidate, Marine Science and Conservation helped create the FaunaTag to help save Southern Resident Killer whales

Before becoming a student again in 2011, I worked for PopCap Games. We made Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies, and I was COO for a while and ran worldwide game studios. When I turned forty, I decided to leave and do something different with my life.

My heart had always been in science.

I lived in Seattle, where there’s an endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales. I kept thinking this would be an interesting career to have, to try and help with the conservation and recovery of populations like those.

I was motivated by the idea of these fitness wearables in human biomedicine. Increasingly you can see them now in terrestrial animals, but I was very motivated to think about how we can build a tag that can tell us something about the diving physiology of free-swimming animals.

We built a prototype device that was good for getting stopped at TSA checkpoints. It was just this mass of wires. The fact that we collected any data at all with that thing in a saltwater lagoon was a small miracle.

I’m not an engineer by trade. I was a physics dropout who knew how to program, self-taught as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. I have ended up learning everything I need about power systems, circuits, capacitors, resistors—what would it take to build an Apple Watch? We went from that nest of wires to having everything on a single printed circuit board.

In early 2018 I started working with Pratt’s Nan Jokerst and Martin Brook and co-taught a class called “Sensors and Sensor Design.” That was pivotal. One of my co-inventors, Sam Kelly, who was a mechanical engineering undergraduate, and I basically did all of the work to build this.

In May of 2021, I was finally able to travel and put the device on live animals. I learned I’m going to have to do some more refinement. I’m going to have to be able to shine light deeper into their bodies to get information.

Not only can I measure bio-optically, get information about the animal’s heart rate, but because this device has accelerometers and gyroscopes, I can actually see the vibrations from the heart happening and the systolic and the diastolic phase of the heartbeat, which has never been done before.

Next iteration on the hardware side is trying to get deeper into the tissue using laser diodes. I’m trying to use the lowest power thing because I’m trying to build something that will work in the wild for as long as possible, with as little battery power as possible, and with as little mass as possible, that still floats. 

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