Big brother keeps an eye on NZ environment

10 Jul, 2012
A Skycam Kahu Hawk, uninhabited aerial vehicle (UAV) and supporting ground control station (GCS) that provides two way control & communication with the UAV during flight.

Threatened species in New Zealand like the Maui Dolphin will receive a helping hand thanks to state-of-the-art reconnaissance technology better known for its military intelligence use.

AUT University has just taken ownership of a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) - commonly known as a drone – to monitor species conservation and map New Zealand’s environment.

“UAVs are essentially defence technology, however, their commercial application is increasing globally for a range of other purposes including conservation, biosecurity, mineral exploration, fisheries management, traffic monitoring  and other scientific research,” says Dr Len Gillman, Head of AUT University’s School of Applied Sciences.

“Conservation is so pivotal to New Zealand’s cultural identity. Using this high-tech equipment will help us to better understand and manage our environment and population numbers. It will also help to advance conservation research in New Zealand.”

The UAV will be used for a range of research purposes including monitoring the numbers of Maui Dolphins – the world’s rarest dolphin; mapping vegetation restoration and regeneration on the Hauraki Gulf islands, mapping the rehabilitation of mining sites in New Zealand, and monitoring sea bird populations to name a few.

Already leaders in marine conservation research, AUT recently partnered with the Department of Conservation, adding a terrestrial component. “Working with DOC will enable the social aspect of conservation, which is critical to the success of all conservation initiatives,” says Dr Gillman.

One of the areas both parties are keen to develop is monitoring and surveying through geographic information systems (GIS) mapping techniques.

Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen, an expert in geographic information systems and ecosystem management, says the remote sensing capability of the UAV will provide AUT and DOC greater capacity for habitat mapping and marine and terrestrial surveillance.

“The UAV gives us the opportunity to look very closely at parts of the environment that would only be possible using low resolution satellite imagery. It also allows us to canvas a far wider area than is physically possible from the ground and gather more accurate environmental data and information about our natural resources.”

Supporting local industry, AUT acquired the UAV from Skycam UAV NZ Ltd, based in Palmerston North. Working with the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency, Skycam has led the development of UAVs since the early 1990s.

AUT is the first university in New Zealand to use the innovative UAV technology specifically for conservation purposes.

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