Microsoft helps develop AI-equipped drones to study rare dolphins

Alice Chambers
Alice Chambers
By Alice Chambers on 01 August 2022
Microsoft helps develop AI-equipped drones to study rare dolphins
University of Auckland

Māui dolphins, including a young calf, swim off the coast of Hamilton’s Gap in Auckland, New Zealand

Scientists and conservationists are using a combination of drones, artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud technologies to learn more about the threatened species of Māui dolphins in the South Pacific.

The number of rounded dorsal fin dolphins has reduced to 54 due to the impact of fishing practices, so non-profit conservation organisation MAUI63 has developed an AI-powered drone to find, track and identify dolphins by monitoring their white, grey and black markings, as well as the black rounded dorsal fins on Māui dolphins.

The solution combines an 8K high-definition camera and a full high-definition gimbal camera with an object detection model for spotting dolphins. Once an image has been taken, the data is gathered on Microsoft Azure and used to identify individual animals by their fins, scratches and marks.

The project has been funded as part of New Zealand’s Cloud and AI Country plan, which is funding several projects with sustainable societal initiatives, and with support from Microsoft Philanthropies ANZ.

Technology and innovation specialist Tane van der Boon, drone enthusiast Willy Wang and marine biologist Professor Rochelle Constantine started developing the drone in 2018, which involved them tagging Māui dolphin images from internet footage and using this to train the machine learning capabilities to identify the population.

“We’re just trying to collect the data and make it available to anyone who needs it,” said Van der Boon. “We’re not here to make decisions on how they should or shouldn’t be protected. That’s key to us because everyone has quite different views on it.” 

The team is also working on an integration project to notify fishing boats when dolphins are spotted nearby in real time.

MAUI63 is also developing an AI-powered application called Sea Spotter, which will enable members of the public to upload photos of Māui dolphin sightings and learn about which individual they saw. This will be funded by Microsoft and use Azure Functions.

Read more about the use of AI-equipped drones to monitor the population of Māui dolphins.

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