Massey PhD student Chris Muller has won the Innovate 2018 competition for drone-based technology that has the potential to revolutionise the monitoring of animals. The win is further validation for Drone Ranger, a Massey ecentre incubator company, which was kick-started via Massey University’s annual Go Innovate* startup contest for students with clever ideas supported by ecentre and Massey Ventures.
Monitoring the population of yellowed-eyed penguins, or hoiho, on the subantartic Auckland Islands, 465 kilometres south of New Zealand, is a task that can now takes minutes rather than hours thanks to Massey University PhD student Chris Muller’s clever drone-based technology.
Previously the subantarctic census of the bird, unique to New Zealand and one of the world’s rarest penguin species, would require researchers to crawl around thick bush in the difficult isolated terrain for hours searching for nests. Muller thought there was a better way and embarked on his award winning idea to use drone technology for monitoring wildlife.
Muller won the Innovate 2018 business competition where entrepreneurs have the chance to pitch to potential investors to create a viable business for his Drone Ranger project.
Chosen out of over 90 hopefuls, Mr Muller’s Drone Ranger project netted him a cash prize from the Manawatū Investment Group, entry into the Accelerator Programme and office space at The Factory. This latest success for Drone Ranger follows it winning a place on Massey ecentre’s incubator programme earlier in the year.
The idea to use drones to monitor wildlife came about when Mr Muller 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 – namely, how to monitor the penguins in a difficult location, and in a short period of 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 aren’t just sitting on the beach like other penguins, they actually 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 2 months to find 50 nests. We thought there had to be a faster way.”
They achieved this by using 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 the drone in a world heritage area. The new technology works where cameras and thermal imagery don’t due to the thick vegetation.
“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. Normally drones and wildlife don’t mix, but 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 brought that down to 11 minutes each, with the potential to be even faster.”
Muller has been studying the birds on the islands for the last three summers. While it was too early to tell results Muller said that the population was around 2000 breeding pairs of the birds and 60 percent of them living on subantarctic islands.
Mr Muller is still completing his PhD, but hopes this project can be carried forward into the future to help other researchers.
“This technology would make locating a large number of animals easier and much quicker. We’ve had some really promising results and we’ve had dozens of other researchers from New Zealand, Australia and around the world keen to try it. Ideally it would be great to start getting it out there to help other conservation projects.”
While his academic supervisors - Professor Louise Chilvers and Associate Professor Phil Battley, have provided huge support to Mr Muller for his academic study, he has also received business development support from ecentre, the business incubator hosted at Massey University.
Drone Ranger has rapidly progressed from a clever idea to a startup company with early support from Massey.
“The starting point for Chris and Drone Ranger was Go Innovate, the startup competition for Massey students with clever ideas which we support,” says Mark Cleaver, CEO of Massey Ventures. “Together with the ecentre, we identify, validate and accelerate student ideas with commercial potential, and connect them to the wider startup ecosystem, as they vie for seed funding and other prizes. The competition is a fantastic way to uncover innovative student ideas early on, which could have real business potential with the right support.”
Jackie Young, CEO of ecentre, says: “Chris and his team really impressed us at Go Innovate. As a result we offered him a place on ecentre’s incubator programme, and we’ve been supporting him to develop Drone Ranger into a business. Chris taking out the grand prize at Innovate 2018 with Drone Ranger, is a great example of how the ecosystem can work together to develop new ventures.”
The Innovate 2018 contest has given Mr Muller access to business mentors. Jemma Brackebush of the Central Economic Development Agency and Stephen Parsons of House of Travel are mentoring Chris, alongside the Dave Craig and Nick Gain at the Factory.
“The prizes and winning the competition are great, but that all comes second to the business advice and mentoring I’ve been getting via Massey ecentre and through the Innovate 2018 programme. It’s been really eye-opening and extremely valuable. As a researcher that’s not really your forte, so having someone to guide you on that path is amazing,” says Muller.
*Go Innovate is run by ecentre and the Massey University Student Enterprise (MUSE) club with support from Massey Ventures. Prizes include seed funding and mentoring from Massey Ventures and access to the ecentre's incubator programme.