Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill Explore Drones for Shark Detection

In a collaborative study funded by North Carolina Aquariums, researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill are examining whether drones can effectively pinpoint bonnethead sharks in different habitats and water conditions.

Over the past year, the researchers have conducted experiments using decoy sharks and found that drones have been able to reliably detect the decoys. They plan to expand their detection surveys into other types of habitats to see how well the aircraft perform. Ultimately, they’d like to set up a framework that would allow other researchers to use the technology to detect any type of shark in any coastal area.

“We’re really interested in the role that these kind of predators take on in coastal systems,” says Dave Johnston, director of the Unoccupied Systems Facility at Duke’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C.

“We’re also really interested in just knowing when there might be sharks there. 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. 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.

“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,” Johnston explains.

He says the drone-detection method could eventually help alert swimmers to the presence of a shark.

In addition to their work on sharks, researchers at the Unoccupied Systems Facility are using drones to track and study sea turtles, seals and other marine species; analyze marine debris on remote beaches and islands worldwide; and map estuaries along the East Coast.

The facility, launched last year, holds an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration to use unmanned aircraft for research.

Beginning this summer, the facility is offering courses to train students and professionals on how to use drones in coastal research and conservation. It also is developing drone-centered educational outreach programs for local high school students in eastern North Carolina.Dave Johnston with drone


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