Drones are becoming quite a valuable tool in conservation efforts around the globe. We've seen them used to monitor killer whales, watch over parks in Africa and fend of illegal fisherman in Belize. Now researchers are using the technology to track shark behaviour along coastal waterways, a project that could not only teach us more about the animals and their environments, but one day protect beachgoers, too.

Scientists from Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have undertaken a research program exploring the potential for drones to detect bonnethead sharks lurking in the shallows. The project is designed to test out exactly how reliable this approach could be when dealing with different water conditions and habitats.

Because of the inherent difficulties in recruiting live sharks as study participants, the team created imposter plywood sharks painted to look like bonnetheads. They then spent a year conducting experiments and found that the drones were an effective tool in picking out these mock-predators from above.

"Our surveys so far are telling us if the sharks are there and they're 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," says Dave Johnston, director of the Unoccupied Systems Facility at Duke's Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina.

The team is now moving to test out this detection technique in different habitats to see if it works just as well. The ultimate aim is to set up a system where researchers can deploy drones to detect any kind of shark in any coastal area and, eventually, notify swimmers when there is a shark in the area.

"Here's an opportunity for us to use some pretty powerful small computers on board a very small aircraft to take us into a real-time detection situation," says Johnstone. "And that's where we'd like to be a few years down the road."

The researchers aren't the first to test out unmanned aerial vehicles as a way of keeping an eye on shark activity. Earlier this year, a local government in Australia also began trialling shark-spotting drones as a means of protecting beachgoers, with these vehicles even doubling as rescue tools by carrying flotation devices and survival kits for people in danger.

Johnston explains the shark-detecting research project in the video below.

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