On Christmas Eve, a boogie boarder lost his life after he was bitten by a shark in the waters off Morro Bay.
Local scientists are working on technology that could help track sharks and their activity to warn beach-goers.
At the Shark Lab, scientists at California State University, Long Beach study shark behavior along the California coast.
“So the probability of people encountering sharks has gone way up, but the probability of people being bitten by sharks actually declined per capita over the last 50 years," Dr. Chris Lowe, Director of the Shark Lab, explained. "Despite increases in both humans and sharks.”
Scientists at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo collaborate with the Shark Lab.
At Cal Poly, students are developing a machine learning program to identify and track sharks and beach goers using drone footage.
Machine learning is when engineers feed the program images and the machines build on top of that. Machines increase their recognition as they collect images.
“The first step is for the drones to take images through a camera, analyze these images and detect that there was a shark in the image. Then the next step is that the drone would have to have some capability to communicate with the rest of the world,” Dr. Franz Kurfess, professor of computer science at Cal Poly, said.
Cal Poly received a grant that this team can use until June. The program now has about $20,000 to purchase six to eight drones.
“I assume [the purchase] will happen in February also. And then in March, we'll probably fly the drones," Kurfess said. "Or if everything goes wonderfully and nothing goes wrong, then maybe in March, we will already have some drones flying on the beach and spotting some sharks."
When the drone detects the shark, the program could send out an alert—which could be a text message or similar notification—to life guards and beach goers.
“We currently have a team of about ten students working on this. All students are relatively cheap," Kurfess said, noting that the students earn class credit for their work.
"And so we can do this with relatively little money, but we're not set up to do this as a full time operation that can cover the entire California coast or even at the Central Coast,” he explained.
Program organizers hope to use the same technology to also track other marine animals like otters in Morro Bay, as well as cattle that may occasionally get lost.
Kurfess said this project would be a proof of concept that shows that the goal is possible. He says they are hopeful it can be applied more widely.
But if it were used more widely, he said, it would need funding to stay afloat.