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Can Shark-Spotting Drones Actually Spot Sharks?

Duke University is testing its technology to find out if one is coming for you.

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The problem with something like Australia’s shark-detecting drone, the "Little Ripper," is that you don’t know when it doesn’t spot a shark. That’s why the latest shark-spotting drone project from Duke University is focused on finding out how good the drones are at actually spotting sharks. After all, you only need to miss one to end up with a disaster.

"This is one of the first studies aimed at understanding how well we’re able to detect sharks, and that’s a key component for any kind of operational use," Dave Johnston of Duke’s Marine Lab said in a video produced by the university. "For example, if you wanted to fly the drones along 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."

Duke’s Marine Lab, based in Beaufort, North Carolina, is carrying out a study to determine how well its drones can detect sharks. The main component is shark decoys. The team releases the plywood sharks into the water, and then sends up the drone—a small autonomous plane that looks like one of Batman’s gadgets—to see if it can spot them. So far the success rate is good, as long as the sharks are close to the surface.

"Our surveys so far are telling us if the sharks are there and they’re less than a meter deep, or a little past a meter deep, then we should be able to detect them even when the water is murky," says Johnston.

The drones are tuned to spot bonnethead sharks, but the eventual plan is to make the technology available to other researchers and to expand it to detect any kind of shark. In fact, the possible uses of the technology go even further than just tracking sharks near occupied beaches. The Marine Lab is also working on detecting sea turtles and seals, as well as analyzing marine debris on remote beaches. These are useful for tracking the patterns of movement and the sizes of the populations of marine species, as well as getting an idea of pollution at a local and a global level.

But mostly, a reliable shark-spotting drone is great for surfers. After all, which shark forecast would you trust, the one that says it hasn’t spotted anything—yet—or the one that can say for sure that there are no sharks nearby?

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