Autonomous drones next step in shark safety
Surfers know they share the water with sharks, but technology may soon offer some added protection from a possible encounter.
According to Southern Cross University researcher Andrew Colefax, the day is nearing that autonomous drones — which do not require a line-of-sight operator — will be able to offer shark detection at any point along the coastline.
"I feel like that's around the corner," Dr Colefax said.
He has spent four years of research and development in the field of drones and shark detection, and said Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning will be a game changer on beaches in the near future.
"There is continual research in this method to make it more reliable and provide a better level of safety," Dr Colefax said.
Drones are operating on many popular swimming beaches across the state under a Surf Life Saving NSW and State Government program, however they require a pilot to operate them within the line of sight.
"It does limit them a little bit to the area that they can cover and having to rely on a pilot means it can be considered … a bit resource intensive," he said.
Dr Colefax said another limitation was piloted drones under use were subject to a surf club's hours of operation and tend to operate only the vicinity of surf clubs, which leaves surfers vulnerable.
"The majority of shark encounters tend to involve board riders rather than swimmers, so it's important that we develop technology with the intention to provide surveillance beyond the red and yellow flags and hours of beach patrols," he said.
Autonomous shark detecting drones could patrol for longer periods of time and over longer stretches of coastline without requiring a line-of-sight operator, but roadblocks to the technology remain.
"We need that AI to be able to pick up and reliably distinguish one animal from another, or one shark that might be a threat to public safety versus another that is no cause for alarm," Dr Colefax said.
Air safety regulations are another issue.
"Drones share the airspace with manned aircraft and so when you talk complete automation it needs to be reliable," he said.
"I think what's missing is a bit of traffic management development. Aircraft [need to be] able to monitor what drones are in the air, where [they are] and vice versa."
Drone systems are not new to the Australian aviation landscape. Semi-autonomous drone home deliveries of food and other goods have operated in Canberra and parts of Brisbane for many years.
Spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), Peter Gibson, said thousands of hours of stringent tests would be required to permit a more autonomous drone system to patrol the coastline.
"We are certainly not keen seeing autonomous drones flying directly over people at beaches," Mr Gibson said.
He said the risk of a drone falling out of the sky and injuring a swimmer in the water or on the sand was the biggest risk.
But Mr Gibson said CASA had an "open mind" and will continue to work with universities like SCU to ensure public safety as drone technology advances.
"There's lots of things that need to be done in terms of meeting the safety standards, but it certainly is possible having autonomous drones flying," Mr Gibson said.
"We expect it will happen more into the future."
// BRUCE MACKENZIE, MELISSA MARTIN, and CLAUDIA JAMBOR
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