By Matthew Loffhagen
Australia is Using AI Drones to Cut Down on Shark Attacks

Terry Goss/Wikimedia Commons
Sharks get a bad rep for the most part – while we’re all very afraid of these pointy-toothed beasts, in most of the world, it’s very unlikely that you’ll get mauled by a killer of the sea.

Things get more complicated in Australia. A third of all shark attacks happen off Australian coasts, which added up to 26 recorded attacks and two deaths in 2016. Naturally, marine researchers would prefer for this number to be a lot lower.

As such, the University of Technology Sydney has put together a new program that uses artificial intelligence to seek out sharks based on aerial footage when they get within a certain distance of coastlines, so that drones can then warn swimmers to get out of the water quickly if they’re particularly fond of their legs.

It’s already not uncommon for drones to be deployed to raise a shark warning (not to be confused with military drone sharks that are another thing), but up until this point, marine services have had to rely on humans to spot sharks in the water, and, as it turns out, that’s something we’re really bad at doing.

It’s not our fault – telling the difference between, say, a pod of dolphins and a family of sharks is hard enough when looking at them relatively close, so it’s unsurprising that when viewed from above, the human eye has only a 20-30% success rate at spotting sharks. Take into account the fact that (contrary to the depiction in Jaws) sharks dive underwater before attacking their prey, and it’s understandably hard to get a good read on these animals around Australia’s coastline.

Enter AI software that doesn’t replace humans, but that’s able to filter things with a far greater success rate. Humans relying on AI have a far more impressive 90% chance of getting things right, helping to cut down on false alarms and keeping swimmers in the know if a shark has genuinely been spotted in their area.

At present, in the war between humans and sharks, humans are absolutely destroying the enemy. Ever since Jaws kicked off the modern fear of shark attacks, most people have no qualms at the idea of killing any and all toothy fish enemies that might potentially take a bite out of a human, and with southeast China (most notably Hong Kong) providing a strong market for sharkfin soup, these creatures (that existed in pretty much the same form at the time of the dinosaurs) are now dying off at a depressing rate.

As such, while it’s important to keep Australian surfers with their limbs intact, marine biologists are also working to improve sharks’ public image so that we’re all less happy about their untimely extinction. Here’s hoping that the combination of AI and drones will help to reduce shark attack numbers, and finally convince us that Stephen Spielberg was full of it when he made us all collectively fear the sea (at least the author of Jaws regrets the book’s message).

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