Drone project to aid protection of Maui dolphin

It's estimated there are as few as 63 Maui dolphins left. Photo: DOC

The Government is backing a new project to use drone technology to transform our understanding and protection of the Maui dolphin, New Zealand’s most endangered dolphin.

“The project is just one part of the Government’s plan to save the Maui dolphin. We are committed to protecting this treasure,” says Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker.

The drone project is working with MAUI63, a non-profit organisation developing an unmanned aerial vehicle – UAV - capable of finding and tracking Maui dolphins using artificial intelligence.

David Parker says the drone could provide unparalleled access to information about Maui dolphins, at a fraction of the cost of other data collection methods.

“This technology has the potential to compile detailed data on the habitats, population size and distribution and behaviour of the dolphins, along with many other types of marine species such as other dolphins, seabirds, and whales.

“By advancing our understanding of how Maui dolphins behave during the day and throughout the year this project will help us ensure the measures our Government has already put in place to protect our Maui dolphins are robust and appropriate.”

Maui dolphins live in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of the North Island.  The Maui Drone Project will develop a model and methodology for drone-based aerial surveys of Maui dolphins, looking at aspects such as population abundance and spatial distribution. It will also develop drone capability to predict dolphin movements, and track dolphins – enabling more accurate habitat models; and explore how the technology and science developed in this project can be used by Moana and Sanford to help ensure their fishing operations are not overlapping with Maui dolphin habitat.

The Maui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which is contributing $545,762 through its Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures - SFF Futures - fund, non-profit wildlife technology organisation MAUI63 and WWF-New Zealand. Fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford Limited are also supporting the project.

“Current estimates suggest that only 63 Maui dolphins aged over one year remain, so it’s critical that we work together to help save them from extinction,” says Parker.

The new Government measures under the Threat Management Plan significantly reduces risks to Maui dolphins. This new project will test and develop tools to provide new information and intelligence about Maui dolphins such as the condition of their habitat, their movements and reproduction, and feeding habits – all of which can be used to build on and improve protection.

Initial testing of the drone shows the AI technology can distinguish Maui and Hector’s dolphins, which look identical, from other species with over 90 per cent accuracy. Flying high overhead with a 50x optical zoom camera, the UAV can find, follow, and film for up to six hours. This technology ensures dolphins remain undisturbed because the UAV flies at a high altitude of 120 metres or higher.

Fisheries New Zealand has committed 800 hours of technical expertise to help the project to analyse data, and develop models to track and predict the dolphins’ movements.

Data from the project will be publicly available. Fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford are exploring how to use the information from the drone technology to reduce the risk to Maui and Hector’s dolphins.

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