• The New Zealand government is supporting an artificial intelligence project to protect the country's endangered Māui dolphins.
  • It is estimated that only 63 dolphins older than one year remain.
  • A drone has been specifically designed to gather information on the habitats and behaviour of the dolphins.
  • This information will help the government take the best measures in order to ensure conservation.

New Zealand’s government said on Friday that it was backing a new project that uses drone technology to understand and protect the endangered Māui dolphins in the country.

Maui dolphins live in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island and current estimates suggest that only 63 dolphins older than one year remain, raising concerns that they may soon become extinct.

The new Māui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), non-profit wildlife technology organisation MAUI63 and WWF-New Zealand.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is capable of finding and tracking Māui dolphins using artificial intelligence.

The technology has the potential to compile detailed data on the habitats, population size and distribution and behaviour of the dolphins, along with many other types of marine species such as other dolphins, seabirds, and whales, officials said.

“There has been unfortunately for many years disputes over how to best protect Maui dolphins,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after announcing the initiative, adding that the government has stepped in to fund the project and help protect the dolphins. “But we need everyone to come together.”

Fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford Limited are also supporting the project. The government has already moved to restrict fishing around the areas Maui dolphins frequent.

“By advancing our understanding of how Māui dolphins behave during the day and throughout the year this project will help us ensure the measures our Government has already put in place to protect our Māui dolphins are robust and appropriate,” said Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker.

The drone ensures dolphins remain undisturbed as they fly at an altitude of over 120 metres (394 feet).