Too many sharks at the beach? In South Africa, you can just use drones
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Spotters locate a Great White off Fish Hoek, South Africa in 2015. Photo Credit: Shark Spotters

Spotters locate a Great White off Fish Hoek, South Africa in 2015. Photo Credit: Shark Spotters

Drones can go where people cannot to study wildlife, fight poaching, and keep people safe from animal attacks

Managing human-animal conflict isn’t easy. People and animals will go where they please, and usually, the animals come off worse for it. In instances where they don’t, people will be maimed or killed – the end result of that, too, being bad for the animal that has to be culled. So, the best means of preventing this tragic outcome is to keep them two from meeting whenever possible.

South African electronics service center weFix is getting involved in exactly those efforts, donating DJI Phantom 4 drones to Shark Spotters, which was founded in 2004 and employs 15-20 people to watch the waves at Cape Town beaches. The nonprofit’s Project Manager Sarah Waries welcomed the donation as, “a fantastic enhancement of our programme,” since spotters rely on binoculars at present.

South Africa has the third largest number of shark attacks worldwide, Quartz reports, and so there is an immediate need to respond to sightings of potentially dangerous animals. So this technology would not just steer people clear of the sharks, of course, but also help combat misinformation about endangered animals. Not all the sharks spotted from shore turn out to be potential man-eaters, which helps prevent overreactions. This is why Fourie has also said that, “The drones offer the extraordinary advantage of being able to remotely investigate reports of shark sightings at sea, and more accurately identify causes of alarm and track the intensity.”

Australia, the second-most likely destination where beachgoers might be attacked by a shark, is also developing drones to help spot the animals when they get too close to the beaches. The drones, cheekily nicknamed “Little Rippers” and backed by Westpac Banking, will be overseen by crews who relay information back to the authorities. In addition, “The University of Technology Sydney is developing software that can analyze live footage from the drones to identify the types of sharks in the water, as well as infrared technology that could help keep night swimmers safe,” reports Travel and Leisure.

Trials are already underway in Australia, led by Surf Life Saving WA. US beaches, which unfortunately see more shark attacks than anywhere else, are also employing the technology.

While drones will help prevent conflicts between animals and humans, they can have a negative impact on the animals if they’re not properly used. Several US states, and Canada as a whole, have limits on how close drones can get to animals, or ban them outright from certain reserves and parks. Elephants, for example, mistake UAV rotor noises for bees, which they are inclined to run from. This is both good – the drones can be used to herd them away from real dangers – and bad, since it puts stress on animals.

This said, conservationists in Tanzania and Kenya have found success in using drones to herd elephants away from danger. South Africa already uses UAVs to protect rhinos, and Russia is looking at them to help safeguard its vanishing tiger populations. Given how lucrative the poaching business is there, the conservationists need every tool they can get to keep ahead.

Drones also remove some of the risk for the people charged with tracking and guarding the wildlife, too.

In some places, the field of conservation is a literal war zone. Dozens of park rangers and poachers have been killed in recent years worldwide. The rangers, alongside conservation groups, are hard-pressed since they have to cover huge protected areas and lack the resources to do both effectively. They can’t go GPS collaring an entire elephant herd to monitor it 24/7, and even the most well-endowed marine conservatory cannot entertain the notion of chipping enough sharks to track down illegal fisheries where the fish are being harvested.

Drones also, from a safety perspective, reduce the risk of accidents while carrying out aerial observation, since there is no one on board placed at risk over rough, remote terrain. Or as weFix CEO Alex Fourie told Quartz, South Africa’s relatively liberal UAV regulations and market climate will encourage further developments of the technology, which could be adapted to other life-saving uses at beaches, for carrying out oceanographic work or for studying marine life.

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