Massey PhD student wins Innovate 2018


PhD student Chris Muller and his winning project Drone Ranger.


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.

Innovate 2018 is a business competition where entrepreneurs have the chance to pitch to potential investors to create a viable business. On Thursday night, Mr Muller competed against six other ideas, presenting to judges in a live “Shark Tank” format, hosted by Vaughn Davis of RadioLIVE.

Chosen out of over 90 hopefuls, Mr Muller’s project, Drone Ranger, netted him a cash prize from the Manawatu Investment Group, Entry into the Accelerator Programme and office space at The Factory.

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.

“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. Although, 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 brings that down to 11 minutes each.”

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 others.”

While his academic supervisors - Associate Professor Louise Chilvers and Associate Professor Phil Battley, have provided huge support to Mr Muller for his academic study, the competition has given him access to business mentors as well.

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.

“I guess there’s the prizes and winning the competition, but that all comes second to the business advice and mentoring I’ve been getting as 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.

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