AI Enables Shark Spotting Drones to Patrol Australia’s Beaches

November 02, 2017 by Heather Hamilton-Post

AI-enabled drones hope to improve swimmer safety at places where shark attack numbers remain high.

AI-enabled drones hope to improve swimmer safety at places where shark attack numbers remain high.

Australia, well known for surfing and, subsequently, shark attacks, began utilizing a drone fleet meant to monitor its shores for sharks. Reuters reports that the drones come equipped with AI-enabled software that can identify sharks from other sharks, marine life, and boats in real time.

The United States led the way in unprovoked shark attacks last year, with Australia following close behind. This year, Australia’s northeast coast experienced several attacks. Current efforts to keep swimmers safe involve protective nets, which have been heavily criticized by environmental advocates because of their potential to harm other wildlife.


Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Improving Accuracy

Called Little Ripper drones, the program began as a trial last year and aims to improve how accurate aerial shark detection is, especially given the inaccuracy of humans (20 to 30 percent) to identify sharks via aerial footage. Nabin Sharma, a research associate at the University of Technology Sydney's School of Software says that the drone system detects sharks with 90 percent accuracy. To train the system, researchers used public aerial photographs and video.

When the drones detect a shark, they will alert those in the water via megaphone, though they also have the capability to deploy life rafts and emergency beacons, should water users find themselves in danger. LIttle Ripper Group co-founder Paul Scully-Power says the group is also working on an electronic shark repellent.

The drones each cost around $180,000 and are battery-powered, providing a live video feed to a drone operator who relies on software to identify sharks. The technology scans the surf every .2 seconds.


Image courtesy of Little Ripper.

Using Artificial Intelligence to Improve Human Response

“It is artificial intelligence—the more you feed the program the smarter it gets. There’s no reason why we can’t teach it to identify rips or submerged objects,” Little Ripper Group chief operations officer Ben Trollope said.

“It’s not about replacing human beings altogether, it’s about assisting human beings to get the work done in a better way with more accuracy. That’s what the application is meant for,” Sharma said.

Port Macquarie-Hastings Council head lifeguard James Turnham believes the program has made a positive impact. “On the first or second day two sharks were spotted after patrol and they weren’t near swimmers, so there was no threat. Other than that there were no sharks spotted,” he said.

But he believes that the peace of mind it brings to the community is worth it. “People came up while the drones were operating and said they felt a lot safer knowing that something was up there watching for any potential threats,” Turnham said.

The four lifeguards who operated the drones felt similarly and received the chance after undergoing training from the Little Ripper Aviation Academy. While it remains to be seen whether the drones will continue to be used with regularity, people are optimistic about the possibility for increased safety.

“I guess the world has learned many years ago-- defense in depth is the way to go. So this is one of the layers of depth,” said Scully-Power.


Image courtesy of Pixabay.