A project aimed at protecting Māui dolphins by monitoring them with aerial drones has gained the approval of the Civil Aviation Authority.
A non-profit wildlife technology organisation, Māui63, has already developed a drone capable of finding and tracking the critically endangered dolphins using artificial intelligence.
But the aviation authority had to approve its use beyond the visual line of sight, so that the unmanned aircraft could be operated far offshore.
The approval is for a 50km stretch of ocean off the West Coast of Aotearoa's North Island, where Māui dolphins live.
The chief executive of Maui63, Tane van der Boon, said it was a huge win that would allow the organisation to survey the entire habitat of the world's rarest dolphin. It is believed there are only 54 Māui dolphins left.
"To effectively track the Māui dolphins, we need BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight] to fly far offshore, to survey their entire habitat," he said.
"It means we'll be able to get out and survey up to 50km away from the pilot in a single flight without any observers required for spotting the drone or surrounding airspace."
He said this use of the drones would allow the collection of data better than ever before.
"We'll be able to monitor the dolphins continuously, which will help us predict their movements more accurately, and better understand the ecology of this species.
"We'll then ensure the information is shared with anyone who needs it, to help put data-driven protection measures in place."
The CAA approval has come at the conclusion of the Māui drone project, a collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, MAUI63, WWF-New Zealand, and fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford.
It used AI technology which can distinguish Māui and Hector's dolphins from other species with more than 90 percent accuracy.
MPI's director of investment programmes Steve Penno said gaining BVLOS approval meant MAUI63 would be able to start collecting more meaningful data, translating years of research and development into practice.
"The latest estimates are that there are just 54 Māui dolphins left. With this technology we aim to help bring these precious taonga back from the brink of extinction."