The Māui dolphins are one of the rarest and most endangered dolphins in the world, with only 54 known individuals. They have been pushed to the brink of extinction by fishing practices off the west coast of New Zealand. In an effort to learn more about these dolphins and support their conservation, scientists and conservationists are now using a combination of drones, AI, and cloud technologies.
This approach is part of a growing trend in environmental conservation to utilize AI and other technologies to collect and analyze data more effectively. Organizations like Conservation Metrics and NatureServe are already using machine learning, remote sensing, and cloud computing to enhance wildlife surveys and map habitats for endangered species.
The not-for-profit group MAUI63 is using AI and other tools to support the conservation of the Māui dolphins. These dolphins play a significant role in the ecological and spiritual fabric of New Zealand, and little is known about them, especially during winter.
MAUI63’s solution is an AI-powered drone that can find, track, and identify dolphins efficiently. The team has spent years developing and testing this technology with the help of funding from New Zealand’s Cloud and AI Country plan and support from Microsoft Philanthropies. The drone is equipped with high-definition cameras and an object detection model to spot dolphins based on their dorsal fins, allowing researchers to identify individual animals.
MAUI63 is also developing an app called Sea Spotter, funded by Microsoft, which allows people to upload photos of Māui dolphin sightings. An AI algorithm will then identify the individuals in the photos, aiding in data collection and conservation efforts.
Understanding the Māui dolphins’ habitat is crucial for protecting them from threats such as fishing nets and pollution. MAUI63 hopes to integrate their drone technology with fishing companies to notify crews of dolphin sightings in real time. They also want to investigate the impact of toxoplasmosis, a disease that affects marine mammals, and find ways to mitigate its effects.
While it’s uncertain if MAUI63’s work will prevent the dolphins’ extinction, their efforts are worth trying, as these dolphins hold immense cultural and environmental significance for indigenous Māori. MAUI63 plans to share their learnings and technology with other researchers and projects, potentially aiding the conservation of other marine species.
In conclusion, the use of AI, drones, and cloud technologies is revolutionizing the way we study and protect endangered species like the Māui dolphins. By harnessing these tools, scientists and conservationists can collect valuable data that informs conservation decisions and helps ensure the survival of these precious marine mammals.