The Malta Independent 30 September 2022, Friday
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Drones with Microsoft’s AI studying dolphins on edge of extinction

Sunday, 7 August 2022, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Small in size and with distinctive, rounded dorsal fin, Māui dolphins are one of the rarest and most threatened dolphins in the sea. Decades of fishing practices, such as gillnetting off the west coast of New Zealand in the South Pacific have pushed this sub-species to near extinction. Today's known population is of just 54.

Now scientists and conservationists are using a combination of drones, AI and cloud technologies to learn more about these rare marine mammals. They say the solution can also be applied to study other species fighting for survival in the world's oceans.

The effort is part of a growing trend toward using more effective information and analyze data for environmental conservation. For example, Microsoft AI for Earth's partner, Conservation Metrics, combines machine-learning, remote-sensing and scientific expertise to increase the scale and effectiveness of wildlife surveys. NatureServe, another partner organisation, leverages Esri ArcGIS tools and Microsoft cloud computing to generate high-resolution habitat maps for imperiled species.

Māui dolphins play an important part of the ecological and spiritual fabric of Aotearoa - the Māori name for New Zealand, inhabiting the waters off the west coast of the country's North Island. Weighing 50 kilograms and measuring up to 1.7 metres when fully grown, Māui dolphins are one of the smallest members of the marine dolphin family and among the most elusive. They have white, grey and black markings and black rounded dorsal fins.

Unlike human facial features, the markings don't vary between animals, meaning individuals can't be identified with the naked eye. Conventional ways of monitoring and studying these fast-moving animals at sea have proved problematic and costly with researchers admitting that relatively little is known about their behaviour, particularly in winter when weather conditions deteriorate.

Now, MAUI63 believes it has a solution: an AI-powered drone that can efficiently find, track and identify dolphins. The aim of their work, according to co-founder and marine biologist, Professor Rochelle Constantine, is to "give certainty to our uncertainty".

"Currently everything we know about them is from summer. We know virtually nothing about them in winter," she says.

Constantine, together with technology and innovation specialist Tane van der Boon and drone enthusiast Willy Wang, formed MAUI63 in 2018. At the time, the Māui dolphin population was estimated at 63 individuals before dropping to 54.

Van der Boon, who is the group's CEO, and Wang, came up with the idea of leveraging drones, machine-learning and cloud-computing to study the dolphins. 

"I was getting interested in computer learning - I really saw how teaching computers to see is quite an amazing thing. All the things that we could start to solve and do really intrigued me," he says.

The Māui dolphins' rounded fins differ from the more pointed-shaped fins of other dolphins. That meant existing computer vision models were not fit for identifying Māui dolphins. So, van der Boon spent "a couple of months of nights and weekends" teaching himself how to build a model. He then painstakingly tagged Māui dolphin images from internet footage to train it to identify them.

It was the first challenge of many. Four years of development, testing and fundraising followed. The team also had to gain specialist qualifications to fly their 4.5 metre-wingspan drone out to sea. They spotted their first Māui dolphins earlier this year.

"It was pretty exciting. The drone was 16 kilometres down the coast, and we could see the AI detecting dolphins as we were doing circles around them," van der Boon says.

Development has been helped along by funding under New Zealand's Cloud and AI Country plan, which includes funding for projects with sustainable societal impact, as well as support from Microsoft Philanthropies ANZ. The solution combines an 8K ultra high-definition still camera and a full HD gimbal camera with an object detection model for spotting dolphins, and an open-source algorithm originally developed for facial recognition.

Hosted on Microsoft Azure, it gathers data that will be used to identify individual animals by the shape and size of their dorsal fins and any scratches and marks on them.

MAUI63 is also developing an app called Sea Spotter, funded by Microsoft, which uses Azure Functions to allow people to upload photos of Māui sightings and use an AI algorithm to learn which individual they saw. Being able to pinpoint the Māui dolphin's habitat is crucial for understanding how to protect them against threats, according to the conservationists.

MAUI63 plans to make its learnings and technology available to people working with other marine species, such as a potential project in Antarctica with the European Union Environmental Council.


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