Using Drones to Detect Sharks
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Using Drones to Detect Sharks

September 19, 2019

This is Duke University. Assistant professor Dave Johnston with Duke’s
Marine Lab is using drones above the Intercoastal Waterway in Beaufort, North Carolina to detect
bonnet-head sharks. The research is part of a collaborative study by Duke and UNC-Chapel
Hill that’s funded by the North Carolina Aquariums. “We’re really interested in the role that
these kinds of predators take on in coastal systems. And we’re also really interested
in just knowing when there might be sharks there and so this is one of the very first
studies aimed at understanding how well we’re able to detect sharks. That’s a key component
for any kind of operational use. So, for example, if you wanted to fly the drones on a beach
to see if there were sharks there, you’d really want to know how likely you were to see sharks
with that type of technology so that you would be certain whether or not you saw them there.” To execute the experiment, researchers put
out shark decoys in the water. They’re made out of plywood and painted to look like bonnet-heads. “It’s hard to get sharks to cooperate with
you in the wild. You can’t take a bonnet-head shark out on a leash. To be able to overcome
these problems with unpredictable animals, we actually use decoys or facsimiles of these
animals.” “We want to get an idea of what are the depths
that we’re able to see sharks at. We’ll always place them near the bottom, particularly these
bonnet-head sharks, because they are sort of bottom-dwelling sharks, but we want to
know if they’re in two feet of water, can we see them? And then if they’re in six feet
of water, can we see them?” After conducting experiments for about a year,
Johnston says the drone has been successful at tracking down the shark decoys. In this
photo taken from the drone, you can see where it detected a decoy shark. “In our surveys so far it’s actually telling
us that, yeah, the sharks are there and if they’re less than a meter deep or a little
past a meter deep, we should be able to detect them even when the water’s murky.” Researchers plan to expand their detection
experiments into other types of habitats. Johnston says this drone detection method
could eventually help alert swimmers to the presence of a shark. “Here’s an opportunity for us to use some
pretty powerful small computers on a very small aircraft to be able to take us into
a real-time detection situation and that’s where we’d like to be in a few years down
the road.” Reporting for Duke University, I’m Julie Schoonmaker. Produced by Duke University.

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