Australia calls in the drones to help protect surfers and shark
Shark in coastal waters

In the competition between man and beast, humans are again deploying technology to maintain the upper hand and this time that help is coming from on high.

The state authorities of New South Wales (NSW), south-eastern Australia, are testing whether drones can keep Aussie surfers safe from shark attacks.

NSW draws many beachgoers and surfers thanks to more than 2,000km of coastline. It is also highly attractive for sharks. While the death toll remains low – at an average of 1.1 fatalities a year, according to the authorities – there has been an increase in the number of shark attacks in recent years as the human beach-going population swells. There have been some 13 attacks in 2015, even before peak summer season starts in December.

Since the end of November, NSW authorities have been testing drone sorties at Coffs Harbour, almost 400km south of Brisbane. The drones feed back live images to an operator, using GPS coordinates, so they can spot sharks in real time and provide early warning signals of their presence.

The shark-detecting drones are part of a five-year $16m suite of high-tech approaches to protect beachgoers, which includes ‘clever buoys’ that use sonar to detect sharks and eco-friendly barrier nets. Some $7.7m is being set aside for trials of aerial and coastal surveillance, including helicopter surveillance.

Drone usage is part of the government’s shark strategy, launched in October, that aims to safeguard both bathers and marine life. Until now state authorities have relied on nets to deter sharks from swimming areas, but other marine species often get tangled in the barriers that damage sea life. It is hoped technology can help avoid the culling of sharks, the other unpalatable alternative.

The Aussies are not the first to call on drones to alert humans to these super-fish. In June, lifeguards on the Californian coast in the US launched mini-drones to spot and track sharks around the beach and monitor their behaviour.

“We are delivering on a commitment to test the best science available, including new technologies, as we try to find an effective long-term solution to keep our beaches safe,” said Niall Blair, minister for primary industries, as he announced the drones trial in November. “There is no easy way to reduce risks for swimmers and surfers.”