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SharkSmart drone trial

Drones can be used to monitor Queensland beaches to detect sharks and gather data on shark movements and behaviour. If a dangerous shark is spotted by drone, lifesavers and lifeguards can warn water users and temporarily close the beach if required.

The first phase of the SharkSmart drone trial began in South East Queensland in September 2020 and expanded to North Queensland in June 2021. These trials are now complete and under evaluation.

Drones will fly over the summer school holidays from 11 December 2021 to 30 January 2022 while the first phase of the trial is under evaluation.

The SharkSmart drone trial is part of the Queensland Government’s investment in trials of alternative shark mitigation technology, to determine what may be suitable for Queensland coastal conditions.

Read below about where drones were trialled, the days and times they were used and the benefits of using drones to spot sharks. Read our monitoring results for the trial and feedback we have received from the community on the trials so far.

Locations

Summer school holidays

From 11 December 2021 to 30 January 2022, drones will operate at the following beaches:

  • Sunshine Coast region—Coolum North, Alexandra Headland
  • Gold Coast region—Main Beach, Burleigh Beach
  • North Stradbroke Island—Main Beach
  • Townsville region – Alma Bay, Magnetic Island

North Queensland (trial complete and under evaluation)

The trial operated from June 2021 to 31 October 2021 at the following beaches:

  • Cairns region—Palm Cove
  • Townsville region—Alma Bay, Magnetic Island

South East Queensland (trial complete and under evaluation)

The trial operated from 19 September 2020 to 4 October 2021 at the following beaches:

  • Sunshine Coast region—Coolum North, Alexandra Headland
  • Gold Coast region—Main Beach, Burleigh Beach
  • North Stradbroke Island—Main Beach

Drone trial aims

The SharkSmart drone trial aims to:

  • proactively and accurately detect sharks that could pose a threat to swimmers
  • warn swimmers of potentially dangerous sharks detected by drones in real time
  • monitor and record species, size and behaviour of sharks spotted by drones
  • test the capability of artificial intelligence software to identify sharks in Queensland coastal conditions.

Using drones to spot sharks

Sign telling beach goers that a drone trial is in progress

Benefits

  • Drones provide a bird's eye view of the ocean and what's happening beneath the surface - compared to traditional monitoring by lifesavers. and lifeguards from beach towers or water craft.
  • Drones are most cost effective than other beach aerial monitoring via helicopter flights.
  • The impact on marine life is negligible.
  • Real-time monitoring means lifesavers and lifeguards can respond rapidly if a shark or other marine risk is spotted.
  • Drones improve overall beach safety through monitoring marine threats or assisting with rescues.

Limitations

  • Drones cannot operate in poor weather (strong winds, rain or storms).
  • Drones cannot operate in restricted airspace—this impacts some beaches near airports.
  • Drone monitoring requires highly skilled operators and is labour intensive.

Operating the trial

The SharkSmart drone trial is operated by Surf Life Saving Queensland. Surf Life Saving Queensland drone pilots follow Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) requirements and each hold a Remote Pilot Licence (RePL).

Pilots follow a drone flight plan for each beach, which includes flying along defined transects. Following a set plan at each beach enables drone footage from different flights to be compared on a like-for-like basis

What happened if a shark is spotted

If a potentially dangerous shark (more than 2m in length) is spotted near swimmers:

  • the drone flys lower and follows the shark
  • lifesavers and lifeguards assess the level of risk
  • if the risk is high, the water is evacuated.

Noise from drones

Unlike helicopters, planes or larger drones, the drones used in the SharkSmart drone trial are very quiet and do not create excessive noise that would affect local residents or beach goers.

Apart from taking off and landing on the beach, drones are deployed to fly over water, well away from nearby residents.

Monitoring and evaluation

Key data from drones operating during the summer school holidays 2021-2022 is below.

The North Queensland and South East Queensland trials are now complete and under evaluation. Key data for these trials are below.

An evaluation report on the trial will be prepared for review by the Shark Control Program scientific working group. The report and advice from the scientific working group will inform a government decision on the future of shark spotting drones in Queensland.

Key data from drone trial operations—summer school holidays 11 December 2021 to 30 January 2022

Region Dates of operation Number of drone flights Total distance flown Average flight time Number of sharks spotted Number of beach evacuations^ Other fauna sighted
North Queensland Alma Bay 11 December 2021 to 30 January 2022       
South East Queensland (Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, North Stradbroke Island) 11 December 2021 to 30 January 2022       

Key data from drone trial operations—19 September 2020 to 31 October 2021 inclusive.

RegionDates of operationNumber of drone flightsTotal distance flownAverage flight timeNumber of sharks spottedNumber of beach evacuations^Other fauna sighted
North Queensland (Palm Cove and Alma Bay) Trial now complete and under evaluation Palm Cove - 12 June to 31 October 2021
Alma Bay - 26 June to 30 September 2021
312 125km 17mins 0 0
  • Turtles
  • Stingrays
  • Manta Rays
  • Large fish (tuna, mackerel)
  • Dolphins
South East Queensland (Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, North Stradbroke Island) Trial now complete and under evaluation 19 September 2020 to 31 October 2021 3,437 1,374km 18 mins 185 (including 35 large sharks which were estimated to be more than 2m long) 4 (at North Stradbroke Island and Burleigh Beach)
  • Dolphins
  • Bait fish
  • Large fish (tuna, mackerel)
  • Sea birds
  • Turtles
  • Rays (stingrays, manta rays, eagle rays, shovelnose rays)

^ Lifesavers and lifeguards will evacuate and temporarily close the beach if a large shark poses a threat to swimmers.

Community feedback

Between February and April 2021 we asked for feedback from the community on their perceptions toward drones as a shark spotting tool.

What we heard

  • We received 751 responses to a market research survey, 233 responses to a community online survey and 1,761 responses to a community online quick poll.
  • 83–98% of respondents supported drones as a shark spotting tool in Queensland.
  • 75% of community survey respondents said they are likely to choose a beach with a shark-spotting drone.
  • Reasons given for supporting drones include that they ensure swimmer safety, don’t endanger marine life and are a smart use of technology.

More information

Your privacy—video footage and images

The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in partnership with SLSQ uses drones to collect aerial footage for research into the effectiveness of drones as a shark bite mitigation tool.

Images of people may be captured incidentally by video during the trial. Cameras on drones are directed to monitor the ocean, not people on the beach or nearby residences. Video recording is switched off during drone take-off and landing on the beach.

Sometimes video footage may be released publicly via the SharkSmart website or media for education and communication purposes. Any video footage or photographs released publicly will be carefully reviewed and individuals will be de-identified through blurring or cropping the footage.

Video and images will only be used for these purposes and will not otherwise be used or disclosed unless authorised or required by law. Your personal information will be handled in accordance with the Information Privacy Act 2009. For more information or to make a privacy complaint, visit our privacy page or contact scp@daf.qld.gov.au.

Find out more

To find out more about the SharkSmart drone trial, contact us on scp@daf.qld.gov.au or call 13 25 23.

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Last updated: 08 Dec 2021