Members of the Māui Drone Project with their unmanned aerial vehicle. From left, Willy Wang, Hayley Nessia, Pete Carscellen and Tane van der Boon.
A fascination with drones has landed a Leigh Marine Laboratory student a place on a team using a high-tech unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in a bid save the world’s most endangered dolphin.
PhD student Hayley Nessia spent time in China to learn how to fly the JOUAV CW-25, which uses computer vision technology that is programmed to search for and track the distinctive Māui dolphin fin.
The vision technology was developed in New Zealand by non-profit MĀUI63 and tracking operations are due to start in earnest on the west coast of New Zealand next month.
Hayley got the plum role after regularly pestering Leigh senior laboratory technician Brady Doak to fly his hobby drone – a DJI Phantom Pro.
When Brady was approached to fly the larger and much more sophisticated UAV to track Māui dolphin, he found he had too much on and recommended Hayley for the job.
Although Hayley’s primary research interest involves lobsters, she leapt at the chance.
“I’m really interested to see the uses drones might have for science,” she says.
Hayley joined the Māui Drone Project – a collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-New Zealand, the Government, fishing companies and technology experts – and was sent to China for two weeks to learn how to fly a JOUAV CW-25.
The CW-25 looks like a small plane with a 4.5 metre wingspan, but can take off and land vertically using four electrically-powered propellers. Once in the air, it uses a two-stroke engine to power a single larger propeller, which drives the UAV forward. Each CW-25 costs around $300,000.
Hayley says she has already successfully flown the CW-25 to track Hector’s dolphin in the South Island in January without serious mishap. Though the first time Drone Project team attempted to take off from a beach, they accidentally sucked sand into the propeller mechanisms and had to clean them out before re-attempting to fly.
Now, a tarp is laid on the ground before attempting a beach take-off.
The UAV has a range of 50km but currently CAA rules insist that pilots must be able to see their drone at all times, limiting it to a range of about 2km. Hayley says the project team hopes to get permission from the CAA to extend the range in the future.
A flight path is programmed into the UAV so that an onboard camera can systematically scan the ocean for Maui.
Currently, scientists have little understanding of where Māui dolphin travel, how they use their various habitats and how often they swim into dangerous areas. The Maui Drone Project aims to fill these knowledge gaps.
WWF-New Zealand chief executive Livia Esterhazy says with only around 60 Māui dolphin left, the current lack of data is “unacceptable”.
“If we don’t remove all the threats they face, protect the right places and Māui dolphins become entangled in fishing gear, or are harmed by seismic surveying, we could lose them forever. Their population is that critical,” she says.
Hayley Nessia agrees, pointing out that the world’s smallest dolphin is only found on the west coast of New Zealand and has been there for about the last 15,000 years.
“It would be a blow for New Zealand’s clean, green image if we lose something so rare and unique because we did not do anything about it,” she says.