Local researchers are taking to the sky to keep beach-goers safe in the water.

Sunday, a Florida boy was injured in a shark incident and at least eight people were attacked by sharks in North Carolina last summer. The best way to stay safe is to maintain a distance from the animals, but researchers on the coast are developing drone technology to find out where the sharks are.

“This is one of the first studies aimed at how we are able to detect sharks,” said Duke University Marine Lab assistant professor Dave Johnston.

Johnston is on the hunt for sharks from the air in a collaboration between Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that’s funded by the North Carolina Aquariums.

In one test, a drone scanned the intercostal waterway in Beaufort, North Carolina, searching for bonnethead sharks. Martin Benavides, a Ph.D. student with the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, said they are working to learn if the technology can see sharks in varying depths of water.

The only problem is getting the wild animals to appear when necessary.

“It is hard to get sharks to cooperate with you in the wild,” Johnston said.

To test their drone’s technology, researchers created sharks of their own. The decoys are made of wood and then placed in the water.

Researchers say a year of experiments look promising.

“If they are less than a meter deep or a little past a meter deep, then we should be able to detect them, even when the water is murky,” Johnston said.

In coming years, Johnston hopes the drone in the sky will tell beachgoers on the sand where the sharks are in the water.

“To use some pretty powerful small computers on a very small aircraft to be able to take us into a real-time detection situation,” Johnston said.

Researchers are also using similar technology to track sea turtles, seals, and even debris on remote beaches.


Reporter: Adam Owens
Photographer: Mark Simpson
Web Editor: Janine Bowen