In­no­va­tion speeds up pen­guin mon­i­tor­ing

Manawatu Guardian - - STOPPING OUT -

Massey PhD stu­dent Chris Muller’s drone-based tech­nol­ogy has the po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionise mon­i­tor­ing an­i­mals.

He won the busi­ness com­pe­ti­tion In­no­vate 2018, where en­trepreneurs have the chance to pitch to po­ten­tial in­vestors to cre­ate a vi­able busi­ness.

Last week Chris com­peted against six other ideas to present to judges in a live “shark tank” for­mat.

Cho­sen out of over 90 hope­fuls, Chris’s Drone Ranger net­ted him a cash prize from the Manawatu¯ In­vest­ment Group, en­try into the Ac­cel­er­a­tor Pro­gramme and of­fice space at The Fac­tory.

The idea to use drones to mon­i­tor wildlife came when Chris was study­ing for his PhD look­ing at the pop­u­la­tion of yel­low-eyed pen­guins on the sub­antarc­tic Auck­land Is­lands.

“You see a lot in the me­dia about the threats fac­ing yel­low-eyed pen­guins in New Zealand, but those re­ports are mainly based on pen­guins from the main­land, and the re­main­ing pop­u­la­tion of pen­guins on the sub­antarc­tic is­lands needed to be stud­ied fur­ther. The Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion (DOC) needed a sub­antarc­tic cen­sus done, and I jumped at the chance to get back to this unique part of the world.”

How­ever, the project came with sev­eral chal­lenges — how to mon­i­tor the pen­guins in a dif­fi­cult lo­ca­tion, and in a short time.

“The last cen­sus done on this pop­u­la­tion was in 1989. This is mainly due to the iso­la­tion of the is­lands and the ex­treme field con­di­tions which cause a lot of dif­fi­cul­ties in ac­tu­ally find­ing the pen­guins.

“These pen­guins are re­ally shy which makes them hard to study. They go into the bush up to 1km from the sea and build in­di­vid­ual nests out of sight of neigh­bour­ing pen­guins.

“The scrub is so thick it can take an hour to crawl 100m.

“The first year it took over two months to find 50 nests. We thought there had to be a faster way.”

They used new tech­nol­ogy fit­ted to a drone, de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with the en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury, and with spe­cial per­mis­sion from DOC to fly in a world her­itage area.

“Our new sys­tem is much bet­ter than just at­tach­ing con­ven­tional track­ing tech­nol­ogy to a drone and the team has done a re­ally great job de­vel­op­ing it.

“We did some tri­als first and got DOC’s per­mis­sion that it wasn’t caus­ing dis­tur­bance so we were ok to con­tinue.”

“With cur­rent tech­nol­ogy and meth­ods find­ing nests could take an av­er­age of six hours each. Our tech­nol­ogy brings that down to 11 min­utes each.”

Mr Muller is still com­plet­ing his PhD, but hopes this project can be car­ried for­ward to help other re­searchers.

Chris Muller’s drone-based tech­nol­ogy won In­no­vate 2018.

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