We know that drone technology can be used to solve a number of stubborn problems in the worlds of agriculture, construction, media and much more besides. But it’s fast becoming obvious that drones can be applied to some very specific situations, too. We haven’t found many examples more specific than this: A government program in Australia using drones as part of an early warning system to protect surfers from incoming shark attacks.
The beaches of Western Australia are getting in the news for all the wrong reasons. Since 2000, there have been 14 shark-related deaths involving surfers and swimmers. With that in mind, the government decided to act. Late last year they began to trial drone technology as part of a wider early warning system. Fisheries minister, Joe Francis, said the trial was part of a $33m ‘shark hazard mitigation strategy’.
“Drone technology has advanced significantly in recent years and it makes sense to test if it can be used effectively to make our beaches safer. The trial will assess whether this eye in the sky technology can add value to the beach surveillance currently provided by helicopter and beach patrols.”
That was back in October 2016. On the other side of Australia, in New South Wales, other such trials are underway too. The New South Wales (NSW) state government has a A$16 million Shark Management Strategy – part of which has demonstrated that drones can reliably detect sharks swimming close to Australian beaches.
Last summer a team of researchers completed an intensive drone trial:
As part of the trial, autonomous drones performed six 20-minute patrols on selected beaches on a daily basis. Researchers received a live feed of the footage and were able to spot species from above while tracking the whereabouts of potentially dangerous sharks. This kind of project puts the focus on prevention, instead of causing environmental damage by needlessly killing sharks in the wild.
Challenges facing anti-shark drones
In an ideal world, a team of drones could patrol dangerous beaches around the clock, meaning that those on the beach – including lifeguards – are aware of present dangers as and when they arise. The technology certainly exists for autonomous flights and even autonomous charging, but there are other challenges before we can expect to see aerial technology applied on a broad scale.
Public Safety and Privacy
Whenever there are drones in the sky, you can bet that there will be (justified or not) public concerns over safety and privacy. Particularly around beaches, where people don’t generally want to feel as though they are being spied upon, nevermind the damage that a falling drone could cause.
But really these worries come down to education. There’s no doubt that beachgoers need to be aware that a drone could fall from the sky and hurt someone. But the chances of this are highly unlikely, especially if flight paths are programmed to be further out to see in the search for sharks.
As for privacy concerns, so long as footage is used for nothing other than shark detection, ensuring the safety of those on the beach and in the ocean, there will be very few who object to drones patrolling the waters.
— TUSExpo2017 (@TUSExpo) December 17, 2016
Plenty of popular consumer drone manufacturers have developed software capable of tracking moving objects and recognizing certain things, from faces to bicycles and cars. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to develop something similar that will be capable of picking out dangerous shark species from above.
Hopefully it won’t be too long before drones, clever software and connected alert systems are helping to keep people safe from sharks around the clock. We have no doubt that there are plenty of other environmental applications for drone technology, too. We’ll cover them in the near future.