North Carolina researchers using drones to detect sharks

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DURHAM, N.C. - Researchers in North Carolina are turning to drone technology to try and detect the presence of sharks in coast waterways.

It's a collaborative study between Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill that's being funded by the North Carolina Aquariums.

Right now the researchers are examining if drones can effectively pinpoint bonnethead sharks in varying habitats and water conditions.

“We’re really interested in the role that these kind of predators take on in coastal systems,” said Dave Johnston, director of the Unoccupied Systems Facility at Duke’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina.

“We’re also really interested in just knowing when there might be sharks there,” said Johnston, an assistant professor of the practice of marine conservation ecology. “This is one of the first studies aimed at understanding how well we’re able to detect sharks and that’s a key component for any kind of operational use."

Over the past year researchers have been using decoy sharks and have found that the drones are pretty reliable when it comes to detecting the decoys.

The research and drone-detection method could someday be used to alert swimmers to sharks nearby.

“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. And that’s where we’d like to be a few years down the road," Johnston said.

The Unoccupied Systems Facility at the Duke Marine Lab was launched in 2015.

It's one of only a handful of facilities nationwide that has earned an exemption from the FAA to use drones for research.

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