Cape officials impressed but also cautious about the use of drones to spot sharks off Cape's shoreline

EAST ORLEANS — Three surfers sat on their boards looking for the bigger bump on the horizon that would mean a surfable wave.

Hovering 50 feet overhead, virtually silent in the constant din of breakers, was a small white drone.

Eight hundred feet away, drone pilot Samuel Morse watched the video feed on a handheld monitor. Had this drone been equipped with SharkSpotter software, each surfer would have been appropriately labeled “Surfer.” The three diving ducks to the north would have shown up as “Birds.”

Capable of what is known as “deep learning,” the artificial intelligence software developed with funding from The Ripper Group by University of Technology researchers Michael Blumenstein and Nabin Sharma in Sydney, Australia, can refine its performance based on the data it is given and by learning from each interaction. Deep learning is familiar to those who own virtual assistants like Alexa, which can differentiate between family members by learning individualized speech patterns through continued interactions.

Photo Gallery: Drone demonstration at Nauset Beach

“It is a self-learning system that continues to evolve,” said Arcady Shteynberg, U.S. representative for The Ripper Group. “It creates its own archives, and is able to dynamically recognize what it is looking at.”

The Australia-based company demonstrated its drone technology and software for Cape Cod public safety officials and beach managers Monday at Nauset Beach.

Over time, the three birds would be recognized as black ducks, and a “shark” identification refined to “White Shark.” The company is working on the next generation software it hopes will be able to identify aggressive behavior in a shark, Shteynberg said.

With two shark attacks this summer, including the state’s first fatal shark attack in more than 80 years, Cape towns and the Cape Cod National Seashore are investigating ways to keep people safe and to improve rescue response at ocean and bay beaches next summer.

Video: Shark drone demonstration

Shteynberg recommended using the company’s smaller drones, which can withstand higher wind speeds. These are basically off-the-shelf DJI Phantoms modified by Ripper. They can be controlled at a distance of around four miles, travel at 10 to 12 mph with a battery time of 28 minutes, according to Morse. In Monday's demonstration, the drone easily handled a steady, sometimes gusting, southwest wind. Morse said the drone could operate autonomously along a preprogrammed route in winds up to 20 mph. Shteynberg recommended a team of two people, a pilot monitoring the progress of the drone and a second person watching the video feed on a separate monitor.

If the drone detects a shark, it sends an alert to the flight team on shore and the pilot takes over, hovering over the subject for a better identification.

“It will hit you with the information and it is your job to make the decision on what it is,” Shteynberg said.

Constantly staring at a screen, looking for something as important as a shark in a swimming area can be fatiguing, both mentally and physically. A 2015 study by Mary Cummings and other researchers at the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University found that the attention level of a driver in a simulator looking at a monitor reproducing road conditions dropped off noticeably at between 20 and 35 minutes.

But Shteynberg said the SharkSpotter software relieves a lot of the stress by automating the process, and said it improves accuracy over human observation. A 2012 scientific study showed that spotters in fixed-wing aircraft spotted 12.5 percent of the decoys placed at various depths in water in their flight path. Helicopters were only slightly better at 17.1 percent. Although the methodology of their test was not comparable, Ripper claims the SharkSpotter algorithm has a much higher detection rate. It correctly identified 90 percent of the 6,800 random samples run through the system, Shteynberg said. 

Little Ripper drones are operating on 15 beaches in Queensland and New South Wales, Australia; Shteynberg said 2019 will see a major expansion nationally. Flying at around 200 feet up, the machines can scan an area with a radius of about 330 feet at a time to a depth of more than 6 feet depending on water clarity and sea state that day. This year, SharkSpotter technology won Australian Information Industry Association awards for artificial intelligence and community service. It placed second in a similar international competition in Guangzhou, China.

Although Shteynberg didn’t have a model equipped with SharkSpotter technology, video footage from other sites showed its ability to differentiate between sharks and 16 other marine species. Shteynberg quoted a ballpark price of $15,000 to $18,000 for a single drone, the SharkSpotter software and training. He said he believed he could have systems in place for the summer.

Read more shark stories on the Cape

While some were intrigued by the drone performance and technology demonstrated Monday, they came away feeling it was something for future, not present needs.

“Drones are really a Phase 2,” said Wellfleet Beach Administrator Suzanne Grout Thomas who did not witness the demonstration but received a report from a lifeguard trainer who attended.

At the top of the list in the phase 1 response to the danger of sharks is improving communications at beaches with hardwired 911 phone boxes and better cellphone coverage. The shortcomings in that area were evident in both shark attacks this summer. People trying to help bodyboarder Arthur Medici after he was fatally bitten by a shark on Sept. 15 at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet struggled to get a cellphone signal to contact emergency responders. The same was true a month earlier in Truro at the Ballston Beach attack on swimmer William Lytton where rescuers had to travel miles to Route 6 for a strong enough signal to call for help.

“When Medici was attacked, the first caller from the beach said they were at Cahoon Hollow (Beach),” said Thomas. “They didn’t know they were at Newcomb.”

Video: Up-close demonstration of drone at Nauset Beach

Wellfleet beaches will have new 911 call boxes for the next summer that automatically dial the county dispatch center and identify the beach, Thomas said.

“I found it to be exciting technology,” Orleans Fire Chief Tony Pike said about the drones. “But I don’t think there is an immediate application.”

Towns are working on budgets for the next fiscal year and with limited money, Pike felt drone proposals would not be part of the budget covering the 2019 summer season.

“There are other fundamental issues that need to be addressed,” he said.

One hurdle is that using the technology inside the Seashore — even for testing — requires a permit from the Seashore and the National Park Service, something that was not secured for Monday's demonstration, according to Chief Ranger Leslie Reynolds.

Thomas said she thought town officials needed more information to honestly evaluate the new technologies that are being marketed to them by companies in the wake of this year's fatal attack. In response to a big jump in attacks and fatalities in recent years, Australia paid for scientists to do studies of new technologies to set up pilot programs for testing.

“I like the idea of a commission that could do the scientific assessment of what works,” Thomas said. “I don’t think anyone would quibble if it’s effective.”

— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct