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 26 shark attacks in 2016. 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 being put into practice next month by battery-powered drones armed with a little artificial intelligence.
Kevin Weldon, founding president of the International Life Saving Federation, 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 device is affectionately being called "Little Ripper," a helicopter-like mini-drone equipped with software (known as SharkSpotter) that analyzes the live footage to identify the types of sharks spotted.
An algorithm distinguishes sharks from dolphins, rays, other marine animals and surfers, CNET reports. The information can then be relayed to emergency services , and with the help of an on onboard megaphone, the drone can warn people in the water before they've seen the threat.
The drone can even be equipped with infrared technology so sharks can be spotted at night. A fleet of Little Rippers can 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.
The drones will begin patrolling beaches in New South Wales and Queensland in September 2017.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in March 2016.