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James Miller, URI associate professor of ocean engineering.

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URI senior Matthew Zimmerman makes adjustments to the sonar imaging device installed on the CT-1, the Department of Ocean Engineering research vessel.

New sonar imaging device protects whales

"The leading cause of death for endangered northern right whales is ships running into them," said James Miller, URI associate professor of ocean engineering. "Since there's just 300 of these whales left in the world, when you lose one it's a big loss to the population."

To reduce the number of whale collisions and protect the northern right whale from extinction, Miller has developed a sonar imaging device that will serve as an aid to navigation for ship's captains to help them steer clear of whales.

Northern right whales live exclusively in the North Atlantic, where shipping traffic is heavy. By comparison, the closely related southern right whale plies the waters of the South Atlantic where shipping traffic is considerably less, and its population isn't in danger.

"One difference between the two whale sub-species is the amount of shipping in their territories," said Miller. "There's no doubt that shipping is having a major impact on the northern right whale population."

When mounted on the hull of a ship, Miller's device sends out high-frequency sonar signals that deliver real-time images of what's in front of the ship.

"Most sonar devices typically look straight down below the ship and therefore aren't helpful in navigation," explained Miller. "The major difference with ours is that it looks forward and has a very high resolution, so it can play a significant role in minimizing ship/whale collisions. It can also be used to find reefs and submerged rocks that might damage ships."

Miller believes that whale-watching ships and cruise ships are likely to voluntarily install the device - both as an aid to navigation and for the public relations value - but container ships and other commercial vessels will probably need an economic incentive to do so.

"If the commercial shipping industry were to use our sonar, it would allow their ships to more safely share the ocean with whales," said Miller. "The sonar might also keep the federal government from imposing burdensome regulations on shipping like those that the fishing industry has had to deal with recently."

Biologists are also interested in the device as a tool to track whales during their deep dives to learn more about their behavior.

Using the technology he developed at URI, Miller started Pyrcon LLC, a company named for the mythological voice of the sea, to further refine and produce his sonar imaging device. The near-term cost to produce one device is approximately $20,000, but as demand grows he expects the price to come down to about $5,000.

According to Miller, the sonar is ultrasonic for the whales, which means that the frequency of the sonar is beyond their hearing. "We have seen no indication at all that the whales can even detect the presence of the sonar signal."

Miller's research about sonar and bioacoustics also includes studies on the impact of ship noises on whales.

By Todd McLeish

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