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Heat seeking drones could help protect and save dolphins

A scientific study recently conducted in New Zealand and the UK, has suggested unmanned drones equipped with a thermal imaging cameras, could be used to seek out, and help protect endangered Maui and Hector’s dolphins in New Zealand, and other marine mammal species around the world.

The successful study proved aerial thermal detection and identification of Maui and Hector’s dolphins, and other marine mammals, would be possible from both manned and unmanned aircraft, and could be used on drones operated from fishing boats to detect and avoid Maui and Hector’s dolphins (and other marine mammals), reducing the risk of marine mammal by-catch.

Martin Stanley from Ocean Life Survey, who led the study, has designed and developed an unmanned remotely operated thermal imaging drone system that can be used for marine mammal study and protection. The thermal drone system can be operated from vessels such as fishing boats to provide real time detection of and protection to marine mammals.

The thermal drone system can also be used from land or boat to deliver aerial surveys night and day, providing the potential means to answer the key conservation question of, where do Maui and Hector’s dolphins go at night and what do they do?

The thermal drone system is designed as a cheaper, safer, more effective and environmentally efficient system, with less noise and shadow disturbance effect on target species, than traditional manned aircraft marine mammal aerial surveys.

The thermal drone system was developed, tested and trialled in the UK and New Zealand, before being deployed and operated along the New Zealand Waitakere coastline for a trial alongshore survey.

Martin Stanley has previously proved, that thermal imaging can be used to detect and identify marine mammals by their body heat, at night and during the day.

Martin Stanley (from Ocean Life Survey), who led the research said, “the results of our latest research, opens the way for the use of thermal imaging drones, for improved marine mammal study and their direct protection. The thermal imaging drones, which detect the body heat of marine mammals, have been designed to operate from boats and land, and can be used to thermally detect and identify Maui & Hector’s dolphins, and other marine mammals, in real time night and day.

The thermal drone systems we have designed, transmit live thermal imaging, dolphin thermal detections with GPS positions, in real time to an operator. This means thermal imaging drones could be used to provide direct protection to marine mammals such as Maui and Hector’s dolphins. They could be operated from fishing boats, seismic vessels, other vessels, or from the land in coastal areas, where marine industrial activity is taking place. Deployed to search for and detect marine mammal species, such as Maui and Hector’s dolphins, both prior to and during operations that may pose a risk to marine mammals, the thermal imaging drones will allow operators to avoid or halt potentially harmful interactions or activity, where the marine mammals are thermally detected.

For example thermal imaging drones could be used to search for marine mammal activity in an area prior to a risk activity, such as commercial trawl fishing. If marine mammals were detected then the activity could be avoided in the area of the marine mammals, or halted until they have left. This would then reduce the risk of marine mammal fisheries bycatch deaths.

Similarly this could be applied to other potentially harmful situations, such as disturbance from marine industrial noise such as pile driving, navy sonar operations and seismic testing. The thermal drone systems we have designed, can provide this protection to Maui and Hector’s dolphins in New Zealand, and to other marine mammals in New Zealand and around the world.

Our thermal imaging drones can also provide additional indirect protection to marine mammal species. They will allow researchers to learn more about marine mammal presence, movements and behaviour at night. This in turn will improve existing understanding of marine mammal nocturnal movements, and allow better protection and management measures to be adopted.

For Maui and Hector’s dolphin’s this could help answer the key question of where do they go and what do they do at night? It has been suggested that they may move offshore and outside of existing protected areas. Therefore answering this key question, would determine if they were at risk in areas outside of existing protection. This answer could be crucial to their conservation”.

Martin Stanley further adds, “the thermal drone systems can also provide easier access to Maui and Hector’s dolphin habitats for nocturnal surveys, where boat access is limited or can be hazardous due to weather, sea and coastal conditions, and where manned aircraft surveys are restricted to airport location, and access to aircraft.

Thermal drone systems can also reduce the cost, and replace the risk of manned surveys. They are more environmentally friendly, with significantly less CO2 and noise emissions produced, than traditional manned aircraft or boat surveys.

Traditional aircraft observer surveys are expensive, and polluting in terms of engine emissions. They also carry an inherent risk to observers and pilots, and have been seen to trigger a subsurface avoidance response to the aircraft, in marine mammal species including Maui and Hector’s dolphins. This means that the presence of Maui and Hector’s dolphin, and other marine mammals, may be missed by traditional aircraft observer survey.

This makes drone surveys a potentially more reliable aerial survey method, using the drones thermal and HD video cameras for marine mammal detection during daylight, while also allowing additional night surveys to be conducted, by using the thermal imaging camera to detect their presence and identify behaviour.”

The thermal imaging drones developed by Martin Stanley (Ocean Life Survey), have the capability to thermally record and map the position of marine mammals, such as Maui and Hector’s dolphins at night and day, and record their surface behaviour.

Martin Stanley says “the technology is affordable and available, with Ocean Life Survey having made affordable aerial thermal imaging drone systems commercially available, for under $5000 NZ dollars.

We would now like to engage with New Zealand marine industries, the New Zealand Department of Conservation and Ministry of Primary Industries, to commission protection trials, and undertake nocturnal surveys. We hope they will consider adopting the use of thermal detection and protection systems, to help protect and save Maui and Hector’s dolphins, and other marine mammal species around New Zealand, including the New Zealand Fur Seal.

We would also like to engage with other government agencies and marine industries around the world, to encourage them to use this technology for their marine mammal protection responsibilities.

We hope in the future, that thermal drone systems will be used from vessels for marine mammal protection, and from land for coastal marine mammal surveys, both in New Zealand and around the world”.

The 2018 study involved an assessment of Maui & Hector’s dolphin aerial thermal detection capability, and the design and testing of a thermal drone system in the UK and New Zealand. It follows on from work conducted in 2016 and 2017 by Martin Stanley (Ocean Life Survey), which proved Maui and Hector’s dolphins could be thermally detected and identified from moving boats in real time.

Funding for the 2018 assessment study, and Waitakere coastal thermal drone survey, has been provided by Martin Stanley (Ocean Life Survey), the Waitakere Ranges Local Board, with further support and assistance from Maui & Hector’s Dolphin Defenders, and Auckland Regional Parks. Design and testing of the commercial thermal drone system has been funded by Martin Stanley/Ocean Life Survey.

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