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Technology keeps eye on sharks

SHARK SPOTTER: Pictured at last week's launch of a new algorithm for the Westpac Little Ripper Lifesaver drone which makes it more efficient in spotting sharks are (from left) operations manager Ben Trollope, mayor of Ballina Shire Cr David Wright and the University of Technology's Dr Nabin Sharma.
SHARK SPOTTER: Pictured at last week's launch of a new algorithm for the Westpac Little Ripper Lifesaver drone which makes it more efficient in spotting sharks are (from left) operations manager Ben Trollope, mayor of Ballina Shire Cr David Wright and the University of Technology's Dr Nabin Sharma. Graham Broadhead

WHILE Ballina Shire's mayor, Cr David Wright, wants the six-month shark mesh net trial to run its course, he is open to ideas on other ways to mitigate against shark attacks.

Cr Wright was at Lighthouse Beach when Westpac Little Ripper Lifesaver drone company announced it has a new computer algorithm which has significantly improved the ability for drone operators to spot sharks in the water.

He later attended a meeting with the NSW Department of Primary Industries staff about an electronic shark deterrent device that potentially could cover an entire beach, which is currently in development.

Cr Wright said the mesh nets "made a difference" in the confidence of beach-goers, but he welcomed any technology that would be less invasive, as long as it had the same outcome.

"I'm hopeful by next summer there's a different technology without any by-catch," he said.

The Westpac Little Ripper Lifesaver company partnered with the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney to create the new algorithm.

Dr Nabin Sharma from UTS said 8000 images and footage taken from drones flying along the NSW coast in the past 12 months had been used to develop the algorithm. The company held a two-week trial in Ballina last year.

The algorithm is loaded onto the computer software to allow it to identify sharks, dolphins, boats, swimmers and surfers from the live feed being transmitted to the computer from drones.

He said it is 90% accurate, which is much more than the 18% accuracy of human spotters in helicopters and the 12% accuracy of spotters in fixed-wing aircraft.

Ben Trollope, operations manager of Westpac Little Ripper, said the company has various sized drones in its fleet of 35, which have a range of between 15 minutes and four hours.

He said it would take the larger drone about 10 minutes to do a complete sweep of Lighthouse Beach, scanning about 100m of surf every 0.6 seconds while flying at an altitude of 80m.

He said to patrol the surf from Ballina to Lennox Head would mean operating a drone from various locations along the route as they can't be flown out of sight.

He said a cost of $40,000 would buy a drone, pay for training for four people and cover ongoing maintenance.

Ballina Shire Council currently pays $250,000 each year for lifeguards.

Cr Wright said it was his preference that the State Government pay for any shark mitigation measures.

Topics:  little ripper northern rivers environment northern rivers technology shark sharks westpac life saver rescue helicopter


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