Artificial intelligence is set to play a leading role in SailGP’s plans to protect the Hector’s dolphin during racing this weekend.

Together with Te Hapū ō Ngāti Wheke Rāpaki, SailGP has developed an industry-leading marine mammal protection plan that includes a range of precautions taken during training and racing days on Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour.

This includes the deployment of two acoustic monitoring hydrophone buoys into the racing area, both of which will be key in detecting the presence of Hector’s dolphins in the harbor.

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Developed by Styles Group Acoustics, the system is essentially an underwater acoustic surveillance system. Powered by artificial intelligence, the system uses passive and active acoustic monitoring to detect the underwater communication and clicking of dolphins.

The detection range spans hundreds of meters, meaning dolphins will be detected well outside the course limits. It has been developed using 100,000 hours of acoustic data recorded from the harbor over the last five years and reports a detection accuracy of 95% in all weather conditions.

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Styles Group Acoustics principal Dr Matt Pine explained: “The device that we’ve been working on for SailGP is the real time acoustic buoy - it listens for the sound of dolphins and then it alerts an operator. The really exciting thing to come out of this with SailGP is that it’s really fast-tracked the introduction of this technology in New Zealand.”

Elsewhere, artificial intelligence powered tracking drones will be used for aerial surveys, alongside on-water surveys and observation undertaken by two boats before, during and after training and racing.

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Observers based at nine on-land stations will also be tasked with finding and tracking marine mammals in the area and will begin observing the race area four hours before the scheduled start on practice and race days. In the event of a dolphin sighting, racing will be immediately paused and will not resume until 10 minutes after the dolphin is confirmed to have cleared the course.

Yvette Couch-Lewis of Ngati Wheke said: “Rāpaki has a partnership role with SailGP to ensure the cultural narrative that sits right across this harbor. We believe that our whakapapa (geneology) is connected to all living things. So we are connected to the Hector’s dolphin and it is our responsibility as mana whenua (territorial rights) to protect this area for future generations.”