Automated shark spotter in development

2019-06-25 06:00
Shark Spotters’ shark analogue (or decoy shark) is used to test new camera software. PHOTO: Sarah warries

Shark Spotters’ shark analogue (or decoy shark) is used to test new camera software. PHOTO: Sarah warries

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There is something out at sea – but it’s not what you think ...

The Shark Spotters, in association with the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at the University of Cape Town and PatternLab SaRL, have launched a new research project to assist the human spotters to better spot sharks and reduce bites.

Ward 64 councillor Aimee Kuhl commended the Shark Spotters on their ability to bring visitors into the Fish Hoek area, as a result of the safety they provide.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the shark nets. Parents would rather bring their children to this beach because of the nets.”

The spotters made use of human spotters for about 15 years, and shark nets, and have recently decided that with the help of the technologies at PattternLab SaRL, to begin research on an automated shark spotting camera system that is currently being developed to more accurately detect sharks entering the area.

The research project kicked off in February and is expected to continue until July or August 2020, until such time that the system can accurately detect sharks, alert the spotters and reduce the number of incidents that take place on beaches – which is already very low.

The number of shark sightings can be very unpredictable.

Sarah Warries, chief executive officer (CEO) at Shark Spotters, said that the previous average was 170, with that number dropping to only 70 last year in the areas where the spotters operate.

With no guarantee of when sharks could be spotted, the collaborators have created a decoy shark to assist the system in the development of its shark spotting algorithm. The decoy is attached to a Shark Spotters boat and towed behind it to allow the camera system to collect data.

Swimmers need not worry about this operation affecting their time in the ocean, Warries confirms.

“It’s just a plastic shark. It has no effect on the bathers. The decoy shark is deployed within the bay but not where the swimmers are.”

She also says that the spotters are very happy with the progress of the project. “It’s gone really well so far. We have finished the first phase of the research and we are currently doing analysis of the data we’ve collected.”

Currently, operations are being carried out in Fish Hoek while bathers are swimming, unaware. “They may see the boat but they won’t see the decoy shark,” Warries says.

Marian Nieuwoudt, Mayco member for spatial planning and environment, said in a statement: “We are excited by the new possibilities that this automated shark spotting research project presents and hope it will result in a system that enhances shark safety at many more beaches in the Cape metropole.”

Funded by the EUROSTARS programme, an international scheme supporting innovative projects, the project will soon make beaches even safer for swimmers.

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