Shark-Spotting Drones Deployed To Protect Beachgoers In Australia

Lifeguards in Australia are turning to technology to protect beachgoers from the threat of unwanted shark encounters, deploying well-equipped drones as a deterrent against the oceanic predators.

This weekend, New South Wales’ Cudgen Classic became the first non-trial event to be safeguarded by the Little Ripper Group, according to the Gold Coast Bulletin. A nine-hour junior surf lifesaving event held at Kingscliff, the Cudgen Classic was watched over by no fewer than 12 separate drone flights.

The drone operations were supplemented by lifeguards patrolling on the water, yet the devices are uniquely equipped to safeguard against unwanted shark encounters. The drones stream real-time video back to lifeguards, making them an invaluable eye-in-the-sky resource, yet they are also designed to be particularly effective at interacting with wayward sharks.

Valued at $25,000 each, the drones are fitted with a loudspeaker, sirens, SOS lights, and a flotation device with a shark shield. As the Inquisitr has previously reported, this electronic shield is specifically designed to deter sharks, and has proven effective at mitigating the attentions of even the largest members of the species. Utilized by surfers and kayakers, sharks shields have been able to turn away even inquisitive great whites by interfering with their natural senses.

Michael­ Crawley, the Cudgen Headland SLSC director­ of surf lifesaving, noted that drones are a natural next step in equipping lifeguards. Three shark attacks have transpired in the last month along the North Coast, leading to the implementation of a number of mitigation strategies. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, the Baird government has announced that it will deploy 100 “smart” drumlines, while simultaneously introducing legislation that would allow the installation of mesh nets off the coast.

Each of these strategies have proven to be controversial in their own way, with protests against the installation of nets taking place in Ballina earlier this month. Opponents point to the potential for negative environmental impacts, as dolphins and other marine animals can be harmed by nets or drumlines. Supporters note that “smart” technologies lessen these risks, placing researchers and lifeguards in an active management role.

Traditional drumlines and nets ensnare sharks and other marine life indiscriminately. Smart technologies, however, have been developed to specifically address the risks inherent in these systems. When a shark is hooked by a smart drumline, for example, lifeguards receive an SMS alert, allowing them to save and relocate the animal before the experience proves fatal. So-called “clever buoys,” which are currently being tested off Port Stephens, use sonar to identify sharks as they swim by. Researchers hope that if testing proves successful, these buoys can be utilized to create barriers which will help safeguard beachgoers.

More than $7 million has been set aside for trials of shark spotting drones, part of a comprehensive $16 million management plan implemented by the New South Wales government. As much as $3.5 million has been allocated for helicopter surveillance, even though studies have shown that its usefulness at mitigating shark interactions is limited. The NSW DPI, for instance, reported that their helicopter surveys enjoyed only a 17 percent success rate when they attempted to identify shark decoys placed just a scant 2.5 meters underwater.

In 2015, New South Wales conducted a trial for shark-spotting drones, alongside the installation of smart drumlines. The state’s strategy for mitigating shark interactions is set to play out over five years, and includes the release of an app, SharkSmart, which allows users to receive shark alerts in near-real time, much like a similar initiative deployed in Cape Cod by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

[Featured Image by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images]