World-first croc-spotting drones could soon be patrolling Australian beaches
Swimmers in Australian tropical waters could soon be protected by high-tech crocodile-spotting drones equipped with artificial intelligence, able to peer through murky waters and spot hungry predators.
A member of The Ripper Group, an Australian drone services company, confirmed to Hack that a trial of the technology is underway in Far North Queensland, where technicians are teaching the drones to distinguish between crocs and tree trunks.
The Ripper Group already supplies shark-spotting drones for Australian beaches, as well as drones that look out for rips and swimmers in distress.
Spotting crocodiles, however, is much harder than sharks, according to the company's chief operations officer, Ben Trollope.
"Version one is in testing stage at the moment but not mainstream," he said.
"Our teams up in Far North Queensland are conducting testing to gather more data and test a range of different senses and capabilities.
"The biggest issue for us is the murky water, and that the crocs can spend 45 minutes underwater.
The frequency of crocodile attacks has been going up in Australia, as both the crocodile and human populations increase. But it's nowhere near the "every three months a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile" figure quoted by federal MP Bob Katter in 2017, whose seat of Kennedy includes part of Cairns and the Far North Queensland coastline.
Between 1985 and 2017, there was one fatal crocodile attack every three years in Queensland. The most recent attack in the state was in January 2018, and non-fatal.
The number of attacks is also relatively low compared to that of sharks.
In July last year, at a press conference in Cairns, the Queensland Government announced $105,000 in funding for surf life savers in Far North Queensland to use drones to spot crocs; a government spokesperson confirmed this was for the Ripper Group drones.
A trial was carried out between Surf Life Saving Queensland and The Ripper Group to identify, monitor, and track the movement of crocodiles in November.
Drones teaching themselves to spot crocs
It appears The Ripper Group had intended to keep its croc-spotting out of the media until a big reveal later this year, but Dr Paul Scully-Power, the company's co-founder (and Australia's first astronaut) spilled the beans at a tech conference in Canberra on Wednesday.
His remarks were quoted by a zdnet.com journalist, and then picked up by international media.
"The Queensland Government said, 'Hey do we have a challenge for you', and asked, 'Can you spot crocodiles for us?'" Dr Scully-Power told the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit.
Dr Scully-Power explained the AI uses machine-learning, studying a database of images to develop methods for telling crocs and sharks apart from other marine animals.
The technology can differentiate up to 16 different types of marine life, as well as other objects such as boats, rocks, and humans, he said.
A Ripper Group spokeswoman told Hack the AI is about six times better than humans at scanning water for sharks, with an accuracy rate of 93 per cent.
A recent technological leap has also reduced the time it takes for the signal from the drone to reach the cloud-based shark-spotting algorithm and then bounce back – what's called the latency.
"At 10 seconds [latency], by that time the drone is 150m down the beach," the spokeswoman said.
"It has to fang around and come back.
"But at less than a second now it can stop and identify the shark right away."
The croc-spotting version of this technology will be trialed at the World of Drones conference in late-September.
Surf Life Saving Queensland has been contacted for comment.