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Green light for drone monitoring project to protect Māui dolphins

3 min read
Maui dolphin

The drone prior to launch in Lyttleton Harbour. Image: Supplied

A project aimed at protecting Māui dolphins by using drone monitoring technology has been granted approval by the Civil Aviation Authority.

MAUI63, a non-profit wildlife technology organisation, has already developed a drone capable of finding and tracking the threatened mammal using artificial intelligence but required a beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) from CAA to survey fly far offshore and survey the entire habitat.

Chief executive of MAUI63, Tane van der Boon, says the green light for the organisation is a “huge win” and will allow them to collect better data than before.

“It means we’ll be able to get out and survey up to 50km away from the pilot in a single flight without any observers required for spotting the drone or surrounding airspace.

“We’ll be able to monitor the dolphins continuously, which will help us predict their movements more accurately and better understand the ecology of this species.

“We’ll then ensure the information is shared with anyone who needs it to help put data-driven protection measures in place.”

MAUI63 joins a handful of organisations in New Zealand with full-time BVLOS approval for a remotely piloted aircraft. The approval is for a 50km stretch of ocean off the West Coast of Aotearoa’s North Island, where Māui dolphins live.

maui dolphins
Tane van der Boon uses drone monitoring technology to find and track Hectors dolphins in Lyttleton. Photo: Supplied

The CAA approval comes at the conclusion of the Māui Drone Project, a collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, MAUI63, WWF-New Zealand, and fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford Limited.

The project enabled the development of a model and methodology for non-intrusive drone-based aerial surveys of the Māui dolphins. The AI technology can distinguish Māui and Hector’s dolphins from other species with more than 90% accuracy. Flying high overhead at an altitude of about 120 metres with a 50x optical zoom camera, the drone can find, follow, and film for up to six hours.

Steve Penno, MPI’s director of investment programmes, said gaining BVLOS approval meant MAUI63 will be able to start collecting more meaningful data, translating years of research and development
into practice.

“The latest estimates are that there are just 54 Māui dolphins left. With this technology, we aim to help bring these precious taonga back from the brink of extinction.”

About MAUI63 project

MAUI63 is a not-for-profit project to protect marine life using the latest technologies. The team has developed an AI-powered tracking drone to autonomously find, follow, and uniquely identify Māui and Hector’s dolphins. In a nutshell, the project aims to

  • find and track dolphins via surveys to create accurate spatial distribution models,
  • reveal temporal changes in dolphin movement patterns,
  • use the data to inform threat risk models informed by natural (e.g. shark predation) and anthropogenic factors (e.g. fisheries, climate change, toxoplasmosis),
  • uniquely identify individuals via fin markings, and
  • distinguish between adults and calves​.

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