How Drones Can Protect Us From Sharks — and Sharks From Us

Beaches in the United States and Australia are using drones to spot and measure sharks. Rodrigo Friscione/Getty/Coddy/Thinkstock
Beaches in the United States and Australia are using drones to spot and measure sharks. Rodrigo Friscione/Getty/Coddy/Thinkstock


Sharks and swimmers have always jockeyed for space in the oceans, while scientists, politicians and chamber of commerce types have tried to make the waters safe. In the past, safety concerns have been mostly for swimmers, not sharks, which led to several species that have been culled, captured and fished into endangered status. Australia has a new tool in the toolbox for keeping sharks away from the beaches using a more humane method than past attempts.

Australia's new shark-tracking drones are part of a 16 million Australian dollar ($11.5 million) shark strategy in New South Wales, the southeastern Australian state home to popular beaches. The GPS-enabled drones will capture images of sharks and send the images to the drone operator in real time, all as part of a strategy to spot sharks and prevent attacks on unsuspecting swimmers and surfers.

Australia has the second-highest reported number of shark attacks in the world. The U.S. is first, and beaches in the U.S. have been successfully using drones for a couple of years to help keep swimmers in American waters safe, according to Chris Lowe, director of the California State University Long Beach Shark Lab.

"It's been unbelievably successful," Lowe says. Information from the drones is given to lifeguards, who with the proper training can decide whether to close beaches. "If the lifeguards cleared the beach every time somebody saw a shark, nobody would be in the water."

If it seems as if humans are having more close encounters with sharks than in the past, it's not just your imagination. Efforts at bringing sharks back from endangered status have paid off, resulting in more sharks in the water now — which, believe it or not is a good thing. Sharks are at the top of the oceanic food chain, and are vital to the ecosystem.

What Lowe says they're seeing more and more of in California are five-foot-long white sharks — newborns. "[They're] big babies. They don't even know they're a white shark yet," he says. "They're scared of their own shadows. And those are the most common size that people see."

Sharks are yet another species where size does matter. "With sharks, it's always about sizing things up," Lowe says. "They tend to be less afraid of things that they're bigger than. Whereas with things that are bigger than they are, they tend to keep their space. So, being able to accurately assess the size of sharks helps the [life]guards a lot."

Not surprisingly, Lowe says swimmers and surfers have a lot of trouble accurately assessing a shark's size when they see one in the water. Like fish stories every, the sharks they report are twice as big as the sharks turn out to be when measured.

Lowe is a fan of technology that helps swimmers and sharks co-exist, but he doesn't think people should throw caution to the wind when hitting the beach. "My philosophy about all of this," he says, "is the ocean is a dangerous place, and people have to accept the risk when they go in the ocean. It's wild. Your safety is not guaranteed.'"

That could be the motto of wild Australia, a country that seems to offer up 1,000 ways to kill residents and tourists alike before breakfast. Shark-spotting drones are a big step in a safe direction.