But first, the aviation authority had to give its approval for the use of the unmanned aircraft beyond-visual-line-of-sight so that the fixed-wing drones could be flown very far offshore.
The approval is for a stretch of 50 kilometers (or 35 miles) of ocean located off the west coast of the North Island of Aotearoa, which is home to Maui dolphins.
The CEO of MAUI63, Tane van der Boon, called it a “huge win” that would allow the organization to survey the whole habitat of the rarest dolphin in the world. It is thought that there are only 54 Maui dolphins left in the wild today.
“To effectively track the Maui dolphins, we need BVLOS to fly far offshore, to survey their entire habitat,” van der Boon explained to 1News. “It means we'll be able to get out and survey up to 50 km away from the pilot in a single flight without any observers required for spotting the drone or surrounding airspace.”
He said that using the drones to collect data would make the process better than it has ever been.
“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.”
Fixed-wing drone project to monitor dolphins
The Maui BVLOS drone project, which was a joint effort between the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and WWF-New Zealand's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, MAUI63, and the fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford, was successful in obtaining BVLOS approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
It made use of artificial intelligence technology that is over 90% accurate in differentiating Maui and Hector's dolphins from other species of dolphins.
According to Steve Penno, director of investment programs for MPI, the acquisition of BVLOS approval indicated that MAUI63 would be able to begin collecting more meaningful data, putting years of research and development into practice.
“The latest estimates are that there are just 54 Maui dolphins left. With this technology we aim to help bring these precious taonga back from the brink of extinction.”
The fixed-wing drone flies up to 100 mph, and can stay airborne for six hours. The unmanned aircraft features a 50x zoom camera and has a range of 35 miles with full HD video transmission.
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