Hi-tech silent drones could be used to fish out the whereabouts of the elusive and endangered Maui's dolphins.
A drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) owned by AUT University will be used to monitor the dolphins and other wildlife around the country.
The quest to save Maui's dolphins has been at the centre of a controversial law change that will see an existing set-net ban extended along the entire Taranaki coastline, affecting the commercial fishing industry, which catches most of its fish within the 3.7km ban zone.
Head of research at the school of applied sciences at AUT, Professor John Brookes, said the remote-controlled drone was a small aeroplane equipped with an 8-megapixel still camera with filters, and a high-definition video camera with 10x proportional optical zoom.
"So, if it's flying over the ocean and there's something we want to look at we can take an image and can use GPS information to see exactly where it is and build a database," he said.
It will mean the populations of some wildlife can be tracked.
"For example, we can say there were 37 of these dolphins here and now they've moved somewhere else."
He said drones were usually defence technology but were increasingly being used for scientific research and AUT was also partnering with the Conservation Department.
"Using this hi-tech equipment will help us to better understand and manage our environment and population numbers," he said.
The exact number of Maui's dolphins has been heavily debated and at the latest count was at 55.
Maui's dolphins look identical to Hector's dolphins and yesterday Dr Brookes said he did not know how they would be able to tell the difference between the two using the drone.
The scientific explanation is that the Maui's dolphins range from Dargaville to Taranaki, while Hector's dolphins are endemic to the South Island.