Shark spotting from the sky supports surfer safety

A blimp on shark patrol is making Australian beaches safer for swimmers and surfers.

University of Wollongong marine biology PhD student, Kye Adams, has successfully tested a five-metre long blimp mounted with a camera and tethered 120 metres above the sea to continuously scan for sharks, rays and other species.

Mr Adams has trialled ‘Project AIRSHIP’ during the past two summers at the surf beach at Kiama, in New South Wales. He presented his findings today in Brisbane at the annual conference of the Ecological Society of Australia.

‘The blimp’s zoomable camera has a battery life of more than eight hours. A manually operated aerial drone can operate only for up to two hours,’ said Mr Adams.

‘Last summer, we spotted sharks five times. They were grey nurse sharks, which are not too dangerous for people.’

Mr Adams is applying artificial intelligence to the blimp video feed, so ‘lifesavers can do their job of watching the surf’.

Lifeguards helped train the system by identifying whether sharks – real or model ones used during trials – were present in video footage.

‘As well as sharks, we can identify people, as well as seals, stingrays and dolphins. The more we teach the system, the better it becomes at detecting animals, as well as spotting rips and swimmers in distress. Around 100 times as many people drown as are killed by sharks. An eye in the sky can help prevent drownings as well as shark attacks.’

Swimmers and surfers can obtain Project AIRSHIP alerts on their smartwatches, advising them to leave the water.

‘A network of blimps around Australia would offer a huge database for ecological research. They could help provide a detailed picture of coastal ecology and the ways in which animals interact with each other and with people.’

‘Blimps are better than nets, which can trap and kill sharks. I want to make beaches safer while conserving marine life. The blimp gives you extra incentive to swim between the flags, which is the area we monitor with the camera.’

Prior to enrolling for his PhD, Mr Adams spent almost ten years as a professional lifeguard at Kiama. Project AIRSHIP is a joint activity between the University of Wollongong Global Challenges Program, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Kiama Municipal Council and the Save our Seas foundation.