Bright yellow Westpac choppers are a staple of an Australian summer, but a new fleet of drones no bigger than a dog are keeping an eye on Australian coastlines, powered by a world-first AI technology from boffins at the University of Technology Sydney that spots sharks and raises the alarm with a 90% accuracy.
The artificial intelligence — known as SharkSpotter — powers the intelligence of the Westpac Little Rippers — small autonomous drones painted to look like their larger helicopter counterparts that scan the water for shark activity. SharkSpotter’s technology has a 90% accuracy in both detecting sharks and telling the difference between dolphins, rays and whales.
And drones are not just offering protection from predators — a Westpac Little Ripper saved the life of two kids in 2018 when it dropped down an inflatable rescue pod as they struggled against a rip in Lennox Head, New South Wales.
The Ripper Corporation was co-founded by former president of the International Lifesaving Federation Kevin Weldon and Paul Scully-Power, the first Australian-born person to journey into space. Weldon came up with the concept of the Little Ripper in New Orleans in 2005, after he spotted a drone searching for survivors in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
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Westpac jumped at the opportunity to join forces with the pair. “It brings to life how innovative thinking, technology, and our corporate dedication to supporting Australia can combine to improve (and save!) lives,” former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer said at the time (Hartzer is now chairman at BeforePay).
The drone approach to beach safety garnered interest quickly: Marcus Blackmore, the chairman of vitamins company Blackmores and a friend of Weldon’s, donated a $50,000 Little Ripper drone to Bilgola surf club on Sydney’s northern beaches.
Then in 2018, the NSW government confirmed it would invest $430,000 in drone technology as part of a trial on the north coast, including training of lifesavers. These days Little Ripper partners with Surf Life Saving Queensland to protect swimmers from marine trouble too.
“It has already fundamentally enhanced the way we patrol and there’s no question it will change the way lives are saved in marine environments in the future,” Weldon says.
“It’s like rubber duckies – once lifeguards saw them in action there was no going back.”
“AI for good”
But it’s the AI that gives the drone its brains — and that’s where Michael Blumenstein comes in. As UTS’s deputy dean (research and innovation) in the Faculty of Engineering and IT, Blumenstein is no stranger to the Internet of Things, serving on the board of the IoTAA and as a former vice president of the Australian Computer Society.
The good thing about SharkSpotter, he says, is the use of drones for detecting sharks is “non-invasive and does not impact the environment”, unlike shark nets that indiscriminately catch marine life, often killing those that become entangled.
Plus, conversations can often turn to culling when there is a relatively rare shark attack — like this week’s tragedy in Sydney that saw a British swimmer killed in Little Bay by what onlookers suspected was a great white.
Blumenstein’s technology, which was also created by School of Computer Science associate professor Nabin Sharma, offers a more ethical solution to the quandary of species control.
“SharkSpotter is a demonstration of ‘AI for good’,” he told Smart Company this morning.
So how does it work? The AI identifies sharks, and other marine life, via a real-time video stream captured using autonomous drone technology. When sharks are found close to coastal areas where there’s a large concentration of beach-goers, the information is relayed to lifeguards and emergency services. But that’s not all.
“The system will give an overhead warning to swimmers [and] surfers when a shark or a potential risk is detected, using an onboard megaphone attached to the drones,” Blumenstein says.
And it’s working: in 2020, the shark-spotting drone sounded the alert 14 times while flying over Port Macquarie-Hastings — a notoriously shark-popular part of the mid-north coast.
Blumenstein says he’s looking forward to the continued partnership with the Ripper Corporation “to scale and fully operationalise the technology nationally (and internationally)”.
And the sky’s not the limit for Blumenstein and Sharma — the pair are have recently joined a research project for deploying drone and video-based AI technology in Vietnam via a funded Aus4Innovation grant. It’ll be used for search and rescue, showing the power the technology has to keep people safe.