Sharks can often lurk frighteningly close to shore, and they're difficult to spot from a beach-eye or shoreline view. Typically, they're not seen at all until the unfortunate event of a shark attack.

Though shark attacks are rare when you consider how infrequently they occur compared to the number of annual beachgoers around the world, there are certain places where they happen more regularly. Take Australia for instance, which saw 14 shark attacks last year off the beaches of New South Wales alone. An early warning system could go a long way to preventing attacks, which would be good for both the peace of mind of surfers and good for the sharks, too, since they put their lives in danger whenever they threaten humans.

The best way to scan for sharks is from the air, but sending human pilots on shark reconnaissance is an impractical option. But what about aerial drones? That's the idea now being put into practice by Kevin Weldon, founding president of the International Life Saving Federation, reports TechXplore.

Weldon says his project was inspired by drones in the U.S. military after their use in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina to save lives. His prototype is affectionately being called "Little Ripper," a helicopter-like mini-drone equipped with software that analyzes the live footage to identify the types of sharks spotted. This information can then be relayed to emergency services or alarm systems back on shore.

The drone can even be equipped with infrared technology so sharks can be spotted at night. A fleet of Little Rippers can also be on call for other emergency needs, in the event of natural disasters or search-and-rescue missions. They can be airborne with just a few minutes' notice, a much faster response time than manned vehicles require.

Assuming the trials go well with the Little Ripper, a fleet of about 40 drones could be patrolling around popular Australian beaches as early as next year.

"We're investing in unmanned and increased aerial surveillance as part of our $16 million shark strategy and I look forward to the outcomes of this trial," said New South Wales Premier Mike Baird.