Innovation speeds up penguin monitoring
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.