MAUI63 is developing and testing innovative drone and AI technology for monitoring distribution and habitat use of critically endangered Māui dolphins. Māui dolphins are the world’s rarest dolphin, found only on the west coast of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island.

The project aims to enable more effective conservation of Māui dolphins and the closely related, nationally vulnerable Hector’s dolphin, found around the South Island. The purpose of MAUI63 is to provide new science, knowledge and technology that will support decisions about effective threat management and conservation actions for Māui and Hector’s dolphins.

Using this drone technology, the Māui Drone Project is a collaboration running from May 2020 to July 2021, involving the Ministry for Primary Industries, MAUI63 Charitable Trust, WWF-New Zealand, Moana New Zealand, and Sanford Ltd.

The project outputs include:

  • A statistically validated model and methodology for drone-based aerial surveys of Māui dolphin population abundance and spatial distribution. This will enable use of the drone in future year-round assessments of Māui dolphin distribution.
  • Drone capability to predict dolphin movements, and track dolphins – enabling more accurate and fine scale (spatially and temporally) habitat models. This can be achieved through object recognition AI to automate detection of the species to find and track them.
  • Exploration of the drone as a tool to enable responsive management of remaining fisheries threats. This will include supporting the industry partners to develop effective communication links from the drone to fishing vessels.
  • A publicly accessible data sharing platform – to enable access to data from the project.

The project will build Aotearoa New Zealand’s marine coastal science capacity, and enable more effective conservation of Māui and Hector’s dolphins initially, but will be used for other marine species. This technology can be harnessed to support a range of robust scientific studies.

An image of two Māui dolphins swimming in green water, taken from a drone flying above. The Māui dolphins are outlined in magenta squares

Example of how the drone identifies Māui dolphins. Image credit: MAUI63.