Māui Dolphin Drone Project

Using the drone
© Maui63
Success Story

Since 2020, in collaboration with Māui63, the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and the fishing industry, we’ve been working to develop an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered tracking drone to autonomously find, follow, and uniquely identify Māui dolphins, the rarest dolphin in the world. 

This project has been generating a wealth of data that will give us a greater understanding of Māui dolphins habitat and movements to enable data-driven decisions on how to better protect them.

Using a CW-25 JOUAV Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) with a 6-hour flight endurance (120km/h), a high-resolution, wide-view camera and the capability to run AI on board. We are now licenced to fly the drone, not just within line of sight of the operator, but extended visual line of sight (EVLOS) – with assistance from a boat-based observer - and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

It’s not all been smooth sailing. There were multiple technical malfunctions with the drone that required repairs under warranty. The drone had to be sent back to the manufacturer in China. And, as with everything over the last 3 year, Covid-19 caused significant delays in getting returned to New Zealand. 

However, in November 2022 all the initial project milestones had been successfully completed. 

Focusing on the Māui habitat on west coast of the North Island, from Whanganui to Kaipara, we have also successfully completed flights over Lyttleton Harbour looking for Hector’s dolphins. 

  • We’ve demonstrated that the AI can detect and identify Māui and Hectors dolphins from the drone’s camera footage while flying (live) and in post processing from the still shots.  
  • We have a process for sharing this information with fishing vessels. Data is available to researchers on request, and we are working to provide the information to the public directly via our SeaSpotter App. 
  • And we’ve developed a statistical validated model for flight planning and surveying. 

Going forward, as well as transitioning to continuous monitoring, there are exciting new opportunities. Integrating further with the SeaSpotter app; using the AI on smaller off the front of a boat drones and developing it to do predictive modelling. 

Using cutting edge technology, we are daily learning more about Māui and Hector’s dolphins, how to reduce the likelihood of marine mammal encounters with fishing vessels and how to protect these precious, endemic species. 

Introduction to the project and initial launch of the drone