HomeMiscellaneousNew Zealand using AI-enhanced drones to save Māui dolphins

New Zealand using AI-enhanced drones to save Māui dolphins

The New Zealand Govt and non-governmental organizations pull together to protect the Māui dolphins who are on the verge of extinction in the country. Artificial-Intelligence-based drones would be utilised to locate, track safeguard these mammals.

Only 63 dolphins are left in the west coast of New Zealand. Hence, several fishing companies such as the Moana, Sanford have joined hands with the WWF New Zealand, Auckland University, New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries, scientists and technical experts to develop and finance special AI-based drones which would help to safeguard these dolphins.

Government policies would be amended on the basis of information collected about the dolphins such as their population size, habitat and behaviour.

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Details about AI-enhanced Drones:

MĀUI63, which is a not-profit organization has developed specialized drones having 90% accuracy. It could differentiate MĀUI dolphins from others as proved by its initial testing in 2019.

The drone is capable enough to locate, track and film for upto 6 hours. It flies at a height of 120 metres and has a 50x optical zoom camera. 

It can detect dolphins in the range of 50 kms from its control post and can travel at a speed of 140 kilometres per hour.

It can also find out distinctive traits in individual dolphins to identify and map the entire population and surveillance of its migrations.

Also, injury signs could suggest the sources of wounding such as fishing craft, which lead to Māui dolphin depletion. This would help to stop harmful dolphin encounters in future.

The trials were first started in Jan 2021 and future flights would gather further information about dolphins’ behaviour and habitat.

A scientist at the Auckland University, Rochelle Constantine said, “Only 7 percent of New Zealand is land, the rest is sea, and yet we’ve been under-equipped to study the ocean. There’s only so much money to go around.”

This projects backs in 2018 when Constantine discerned that following the sale of an aircraft (which did annual surveys to find dolphins) to Australia, the scientists were unable to track them. Hence, some other device had to be utilised to carry on the project, so the development of these special drones began there.

She further added, “In the past, we had highly trained observers in a plane who would go out about once a year and report on what they saw. You had to rely on their expertise and timing. There was otherwise no visual record if sightings were questioned.”

These drones are cheaper and have greater efficiency whereas the boats and aircraft which were used earlier were expensive and were unable to collect information during winters due to weather conditions. For the environment and human beings, drones are safer and they could collect much more information. The MĀUI63 project began when Constantine worked together with technology expert Tane van der Boon,  and medical doctor and drone enthusiast Willy Wang.

Ministry for Primary Industries Director of Investment Programmes Steve Penno stated, “The details around the project, including how the information will be made available, are being worked out by MĀUI63.”

He said that the Govt financed this project because they are working for a noble cause to protect the beloved national treasure, the Māui dolpins.
Chief Operating Officer at Sanford, Clement Chia said, “For us, the environment is important. We don’t want to be the company that catches an animal that’s under threat. It’s not good for us and the industry reputationally and ethically. We want to do better, to work in a sustainable way, and to use the latest technology. It’s a win-win.”

Causes of decline:

The major cause of their depletion in 1970s was the extensive use of gillnets in shallow waters and dolphins died of suffocation in the nets. After a decade, the conservationists found out that they are declining rapidly and need to be preserved.
Apart from this, a parasite known as toxoplasmosis, which is found in cat faeces, is another major cause of their extinction.

Constantine stated, “The parasite can only complete its life cycle via cats – there may be a billion parasitic cysts in a single cat [faeces].”

She added, “The parasite can survive weathering conditions and is virtually indestructible. Once it gets into our waterways it’s ingested by fish, which in turn is eaten by dolphins. From there it’s said to cause organ failure and it attacks the brain.”
However, the drones may detect the problem. She said, “It will show the dolphins’ migrating patterns, where runoff or [the problem areas where Toxoplasma gondii] is located, and where and when there’s a significant overlap between the two.”

The extinction of the species could be prevented if this information and data could is utilised properly, said Constantine.

The data will help to take the nation forward, said Livia Esterhazy, the CEO of WWF-New Zealand. As technology has brought different governmental and non-governmental organizations together to preserve this national treasure, it will definitely help in moving the country forward.

Constantine said, “Conservation often gets left behind. The time taken for consultation or trying to ascertain the best approach is time where these animals become more under threat. ‘Business as usual’ isn’t an option any more.”

She added, “Our vision is for people to live in harmony with nature. We want to ensure these precious creatures are protected, but we also want to ensure people can continue to fish, within boundaries that ensure a sustainable environment. We may all sit in different camps but this data will move us forward. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Stuti Tripathi
I have keen interest in scientific discoveries and technological advancements. I'm always curious to learn more and more about our galaxies and typically love to read about astronomy.