Little Ripper shark-spotting drones will launch in September

shark spotter
Shao-Chun Wang/123RF

A research team in Australia recently developed an algorithm capable of using video footage streamed from drones to detect sharks and alert swimmers, dubbing it (naturally) Shark Spotter. According to Dr. Nabin Sharma — a research associate at the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney — the new algorithm is 90 percent accurate in distinguishing sharks from dolphins, rays, whales, and other marine life. Those numbers are significant when compared to an 18 percent accuracy of human spotters using their naked eye in helicopters, or the 12 percent rate for humans in fixed-wing aircraft.

The university hopes that new technology will make beaches safer and help maintain Australia’s reputation as a top tourist destination. An earlier deployment of protective nets off the country’s northeast coast drew complaints from environmentalists, who maintained that the nets harmed marine wildlife.

The Shark Spotter tech launched 12 months ago by the Australia-based Westpac Group, a bank that sponsors search and rescue drones. Westpac commissioned the researchers at UTS to develop the algorithm and integrate it with the company’s existing Little Ripper Lifesaver drones. Over the course of the year, UTS staff flew drones over coastal waters and captured roughly 8,000 images. The team then created the algorithm using computer systems modeled after the human brain and nervous system.

new south wales testing little ripper shark finding drones littleripper1
Westpac’s Little Ripper Westpac

In September 2017, Little Ripper drones will begin patrolling some Australian beaches. “The system efficiently distinguishes and identifies sharks from other targets by processing video feeds that are dynamic as well as images where objects are static,” said UTS Prof. Michael Blumenstein.

With the new technology, the drones will be able to hover over sharks when detected and send alerts to nearby lifeguards and emergency services. They’ll also alert any swimmers below via an on-board megaphone. According to Dr Paul Scully-Power, a co-founder of the Little Ripper Group, an emergency beacon and a life raft can be dropped from the drone. The company is also developing an electronic shark repellent. Ben Trollope, the operations manager for Westpac Little Ripper, said there are currently 35 drones in the fleet which range in flight capacity from 15 minutes to four hours. It costs a government or private institution about $40,000 to buy the drone, pay for training for four people, and cover ongoing maintenance.

The project is similar to the Sentinel VDS drone which developers at the environmental intelligence company Astron are currently working on. The Little Ripper Lifesavers are expected to be equipped with the Shark Spotter technology and will begin patrolling Australian beaches September 2017.

Update: Added additional info about deployment date and more drone details.