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New Zealand backs a drone project to protect endangered dolphins

The new Māui Drone Project will use a UAV capable of finding and tracking the dolphins using artificial intelligence

Maui dolphins spotted by a drone. (Courtesy: MAUI63)

Wellington: New Zealand's government said on Friday that it was backing a new project that uses drone technology to understand and protect the endangered Māui dolphins in the country.

Maui dolphins live in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island and current estimates suggest that only 63 dolphins older than one year remain, raising concerns that they may soon become extinct.

The new Māui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), non-profit wildlife technology organisation MAUI63 and WWF-New Zealand.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is capable of finding and tracking Māui dolphins using artificial intelligence.

The 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, officials said.

"There has been unfortunately for many years disputes over how to best protect Maui dolphins," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after announcing the initiative, adding that the government has stepped in to fund the project and help protect the dolphins. "But we need everyone to come together."

Fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford Limited are also supporting the project. The government has already moved to restrict fishing around the areas Maui dolphins frequent.

“By advancing our understanding of how Māui 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 Māui dolphins are robust and appropriate,” said Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker.

Team members from MAUI63 with their drone.
Team members from MAUI63 with their drone. (Courtesy MAUI63)

The drone ensures dolphins remain undisturbed as they fly at an altitude of over 120 metres (394 feet).

A post on the MAUI63 website from December 2020 explains more about the different technologies deployed in the drone. The MAUI63 team worked with the drone manufacturer to interface the AI with an autopilot system that allows the drone to chase dolphin detections if the pilot approves. The drone has 50x optical zoom and it can fly for up to 6 hours at a time and at a speed of 140kmh, the post explains.

The drone also has safety features like an ADS-B (or Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) system, which lets an aircraft automatically broadcasts its precise location through a digital data link. The UAV is painted bright orange and equipped with special aviation lights to make it visible to other aircraft.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Christian Schmollinger for Reuters)

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