“We’ve never seen this before,” Roland Knapp said from behind his head-mounted screen display. “There’s an aggregation of at least 300 tadpoles here, depth of four meters, temperature is four degrees Celsius.”
We couldn’t see what was on his screen. Our view was the vast, snow-covered expanse of backcountry Yosemite, but we could feel Knapp’s excitement. Ericka Hegeman, one of the researchers associated with the Mountain Lakes Research Group based at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL), busily took notes on everything Knapp said as he piloted his Sofar Trident underwater drone beneath the ice of the mountain lake buried before us, just starting to show signs of the spring thaw.
Conservationists are turning to emerging technologies to understand and intervene in the ecosystems they’re trying to monitor and protect, and vice versa.
Knapp, a research biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team study the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog, which spends most of its life — nearly nine months of every year — trapped under the ice. The team had already made a handful of trips to the lake with the drone in recent years, but this was one of the first opportunities they had to gather video of the species in this environment. Any and all observations would be valuable for the conservation effort.
I was there for an entirely different reason: My company, Sofar Ocean Technologies, had spent the past few years designing and manufacturing the underwater drones Knapp was using, after a successful Kickstarter project brought the concept to life. Getting into the field with a team of users, especially in such an extreme environment, was a rare and valuable experience for product feedback. Mostly…