Drones protecting humans and sharks

Drones could be the key to safer beaches for swimmers, surfers, snorkelers—and sharks.

An intensive trial monitoring New South Wales beaches has shown that drones mounted with cameras can reliably detect the big fish.

“This could provide a way to reduce bites without harming sharks or other marine animals,” says Associate Professor Brendan Kelaher of Southern Cross University.

A team from the University and the NSW Department of Primary Industries flew drones for six 20-minute patrols over numerous beaches, during school holidays in 2016 and 2017.

They monitored the footage and notified surf life savers who then decided how to act, for example by closing the beach if it was a dangerous shark.

“We’ve shown it works—it’s not fail-safe and there are days the weather is too bad for drones or the water visibility is poor, but it still reduces the overall risk,” Brendan says.

They’re currently working with companies trying to develop drone-based technology to detect sharks without people, similar to facial recognition software.

“So it might give people a shortlist of video clips to decide on. The cameras can also be better than the human eye, if we move to sensors like hyperspectral cameras,” Brendan says.

“The other opportunity is in combining technologies—for example with a drone that sits above a drowning person so that if they go under, the surf life saver knows exactly where to find them.”

Issues around public privacy and ensuring the hardware is reliable under a heavy workload need to be addressed, but Brendan hopes the method could be in place within five years.

For more information:

Southern Cross University
Sharlene King
+61 429 661349

A white shark swims beneath a drone. Credit: Andrew Colefax