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Drones on Shark Watch in Western Australia

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Drones on Shark Watch in Western Australia

Five beaches in Perth, Western Australia have deployed drones as lifeguards to prevent shark attacks. This comes after a spurt in these attacks over the last few years. These drones are capable of spotting sharks and are being used to warn swimmers and surfers in case they detect the presence of the creatures within a range.

The drones are said to have made an immediate impact, with their warnings leading to a couple of evacuations at Secret Harbour in South Perth within the first two weeks of deployment.

Why The Need

While shark attacks have been relatively rare (only 47 fatal attacks in the last 50 years), there seems to be growing incidences of attacks as well as sightings close to the shoreline. Human surveillance has not proved effective in terms of sudden attack or providing timely warnings. Lifeguards have had to rely on the naked eye (aided by binoculars) to spot any potential danger, and then try and reach the spot using surfboards and/or rubber boats.

An effective alternative that has been frequently used in the past is shark nets. However, these nets have the potential to endanger other marine life. Given the low frequency of shark attacks, these nets are not considered as the ideal option.

Authorities in Australia have been searching for a more environment friendly substitute. Sonar technology and the use of drones are two of the suggested alternatives. Following a recent parliament enquiry, states have been asked to withdraw shark nets within a given time-frame in favour of using technology-based alternatives.

The Drones

The drones perform routine patrol over the sea within a fixed distance from the seashore. They are equipped with high-end cameras that capture multiple images of the ocean surface (and below) and use an algorithm to identify various objects. These drones are capable of identifying up to 16 different objects, including sharks, dolphins, whales, surfers, different boats and others.

When a shark is spotted and deemed dangerous, life guards evacuate the beach and then monitor the creature to ensure it moves safely out to sea before allowing swimmers to return.

Styled in red-and-yellow stripes, similar to Australia’s lifeguards uniform, the drones alert lifeguards when they spot a shark, allowing the latter to evacuate the area and ensure safety till the sea is deemed safe again.

Advantages of using Drones

The addition of technology to support the work of lifeguards has been welcome across the board. Drones can significantly improve the safety of beachgoers as they:

  • provide a vertical eye over the ocean surface and can quickly detect underwater predators
  • provide visibility beyond ocean waves
  • can spot the danger and alert swimmers/surfers in real time
  • can reach distressed swimmers and deliver safety devices faster, being closer to the action
  • deliver superior recognition capabilities (> 90% accuracy vs. only 16% with the naked eye).

Conclusion

Drones are a welcome addition to the surveillance work done at the beach. They can keep a closer eye on the action and can provide real time warning and support to distressed swimmers and surfers. Drones can also be used to identify other hazards, such as jellyfish or strong currents.

Drones are being similarly used by an UTS program to spot and track crocodiles in northern Australia.

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