On the lookout for sharks and rips from the sky: Project AIRSHIP

On the lookout for sharks and rips from the sky: Project AIRSHIP

Project AIRSHIP started last year as a non-lethal shark spotting program, designed as a zero-bycatch alternative to harmful shark nets. This year, the project is being developed to spot Australia’s number one beach killer: rips.

This weekend, the summer surf season will officially open, with lifeguards stamping the iconic red and yellow flags into the sands of Australia’s countless beaches. 

But with latest data from Royal Lifesaving Australia revealing there was a 10 percent increase in drowning-related deaths from the previous year, lifeguards are encouraging people to remain vigilant about ocean safety.

Marine scientist, UOW PhD student and professional lifeguard Kye Adams is hoping to make the job easier for those patrolling our beaches. His Global Challenges supported-project, Project AIRSHIP, uses blimp-mounted cameras fitted with advanced motion detection software to spot dangers in the ocean.

Project AIRSHIP, which stands for Aerial Inflatable Remote Shark Human Interaction Prevention, started last summer as a non-lethal and sustainable alternative to shark culling and meshing.

It was successful in spotting a number of marine species at Kiama beach, including grey nurse sharks, where sirens would be sounded and jet skis launched, herding the sharks away from swimmers.

This season, the project has continued to evolve, and now the plan is to target something much more dangerous to swimmer safety than sharks: rips.  

“Rips are probably the biggest killer in our ocean, more so than shark incidents, which are actually quite rare,” Kye says.

“This year we’ve begun to adapt our algorithm so that the blimp will be able to detect rips by itself, which has involved annotating footage of rips, using human observance and training the algorithm to know what a rip looks like.”

According to Surf Life Saving Australia, rips are the number one beach hazard in Australia, and the data doesn’t lie. From 2004-2016, shark bite deaths were recorded at 26. Drowning from rips from the same time period had a rate of 230 fatalities.  

Additionally, on any given day, 17,000 rips can make up the seas off beaches around Australia.

“We can achieve much a greater preventative safety action if we can detect rips and people caught in them, because they definitely pose a significant safety hazard to beach goers,” Kye says.  

“If we can use the blimp to spot rips as well as other dangers such as sharks, it gives lifeguards a vantage point they wouldn’t otherwise get, so they can see any ocean hazards that may be posing a risk to swimmers.”

Kye says his blimp is a more effective solution than other aerial surveillances, such as drones or helicopters, because the blimp technology is continuous.

“The blimp, tethered to the beach, can stay in the sky all day and provide on-going coverage. It doesn’t have to come down to be refuelled or recharged,” he says.

The new rip-spotting algorithm continues to be developed, and Kye is hopeful that by December, skies above a soon-to-be-confirmed beach will be home to the AIRSHIP blimp.

“Currently we’re doing further trials and gathering social data on people’s attitudes towards the blimp,” he says.

“The process is quite difficult and expensive, but it’s been really rewarding to the see the development and improvements of the blimp from where we started.”


A love for the ocean: protecting our sharks

Despite the ocean being pivotal to life on earth and covering more than 70 percent of the world’s surface, more than 80 per cent of our ocean remains unmapped, undiscovered and unexplored. The mysteries of the deep have become a life-long passion for many who are attracted to the wild, uncontrollable nature of the sea.

Having grown up around the ocean swimming and surfing his whole life, and now having worked as a professional lifeguard for over 10 years, Kye is one of those people. He spends his time chasing the summer and chasing the swell.

As a marine scientist, the ocean is a place he is incredibly passionate about, and one that he has developed an enormous respect for.

“The ocean is wild, it can’t be tamed, and every time you enter the sea you are entering a wilderness area, with wild animals in that place calling it their home,” he says.

“I like that feeling, of how incredibly small you feel. It’s really meditative for me. It makes you appreciate the power it has.”

But the ocean is under threat. Recent data from the Marine Conservation Institute suggests that less than three percent of the ocean can be classified as “highly protected” from ocean acidification, heatwaves, pollution and commercial activities such as overfishing.

It means the world is likely to fail meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14, conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development, which has a target of protecting 10 per cent of the global ocean by 2020.

For Kye, it’s something deeply concerning and something that needs to be addressed, including protecting animals that play a vital role in the running of the ocean’s ecosystem. 

“Although the ocean is so wild, it’s so fragile at the same time. We’re causing a lot of disturbances to the natural system, which we need to measure and keep track of, and try to reduce these.”

One of those disturbances is shark culling through drumlines (baited hooks) and bottom-set gill nets, which kills hundreds of sharks per year.

These nets hang vertically in the sea through top-floats and weights that attach to the bottom of seabed. When sharks swim into these nets, usually made out of nylon, they become tangled, distressed and eventually drown.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, 89% of hammerhead sharks and 80% of thresher and white sharks in the north east Atlantic Ocean have disappeared in the last two decades because of these fishing nets.

It was these alarming statistics, which continue to rise each year, that led Kye to think of the long-term consequences of losing the ocean’s top predator.

“Sitting at the top of the food chain, sharks regulate the whole ocean, and if you remove that top predator, you disrupt the whole food web, which has a flow on effect with all species on that food chain,” he says.

Sharks are incredibly important to an ecosystem because they are considered a “keystone” species, meaning they play a vital role in how that ecosystem functions, and without them, the whole structure can become unbalanced and may cease to exist.

In particular, sharks are crucial in managing and sustaining fish populations, eating those that are old, sick or slow, which in turn helps to keep the population healthy and productive. Sharks also play a pivotal role in maintaining the health of coral reefs and seagrass, their intimidation factor shifting where their prey forms their habitats and feeding strategies.

Additionally, shark nets are an indiscriminate method of catchment, meaning other marine animals also get caught in the crossfire.

Over the past 60 years, in New South Wales alone, more than 15,135 other marine animals, including turtles, whales, stingrays, dolphins, dugongs and other small and large animals have been caught and killed in these nets.

So, why then are shark nets installed? Safety of beach goers first springs to mind, but the practice isn’t as sustainable or effective as one might think.

“Currently it’s not known what level of safety shark nets provide, given that its quite hard to measure the risk reduction,” says Kye.

“When a shark is caught in a net and killed, we can’t know if that shark would’ve posed a danger or harmed anyone.”

“So, it’s extremely concerning that the first reaction is to kill sharks or catch them through nets, not only because it’s so damaging to the ecosystem, but also because there’s not really anyway to tell if you’re making people safer.”

Kye is passionate about Project AIRSHIP because the strategy behind it not only thinks about the safety of beachgoers, but the safety of marine populations.

“Not only is this a non-lethal sustainable method of spotting and protecting sharks, but we are a zero-bycatch alternative, meaning no other animals are harmed,”

“It’s important because we need to manage and help protect the ocean for future generations.”

The location of the Project AIRSHIP blimp for this summer season is yet to be announced, with the team currently undergoing council negotiations.