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Shark spotting gets hi-tech dimension

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Cape Town looks to add an automated shark spotting system to assist with accurate shark detection.
Cape Town looks to add an automated shark spotting system to assist with accurate shark detection.

The Shark Spotters organisation is looking to introduce an automated shark spotting system to be used in the City of Cape Town and beyond.

Funded by the city and the Save Our Seas Foundation, Shark Spotters is a shark safety and research organisation that has been operational since 2004, and has recorded over 2 500 shark sightings.

Having used trained observers to reduce the risk of shark bites in Cape Town for the past 15 years, the organisation now envisions adding an automated system to overcome some of the limitations it currently experiences, including the potential for human fatigue and error.

According to a statement, Shark Spotters, the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and PatternLab SaRL, a research and development company specialising in data science and computer-aided vision from Switzerland, have kick-started the research phase of the project.

The research project will run for a total of 18 months, after which the entities involved will develop a low-cost computer-aided vision automatic shark detection algorithm to be used on fixed cameras above Cape Town's beaches.

"Shark Spotters has been at the forefront of sustainable shark bite mitigation measures worldwide since it started in 2004. We are excited by the new possibilities that this automated shark spotting research project presents and hope it will result in a system that enhances shark safety at beaches across the city," says Marian Nieuwoudt, the city's mayoral committee member for spatial planning and environment.

This move marks another step in the organisation's quest to include technology to provide essential safety tips and shark activity information. In 2016, Shark Spotters introduced a mobile app to help swimmers and surfers to be shark smart at beaches in Cape Town.

The city says field work for the project has begun on Fish Hoek beach, and involves collecting footage of sharks for analysis and development of the detection algorithm software.

"While footage of live sharks is collected where possible, a decoy shark is also being used due to the sporadic and unreliable nature of shark sightings. Environmental and experimental variables are recorded during the data collection in order to assess their impact on the ability of the software to detect sharks, and to compare results to the effectiveness of the current human-based spotting system in place. The automated system will not replace the spotters employed in Cape Town, but rather assist them with more reliable and accurate shark detection."

The research project is funded under the Eurostars programme, an international scheme that supports innovative projects led by research and development. In SA, the funding for Shark Spotters and UCT is administered via the Department of Science and Technology (DST), while PatternLab's involvement is financed by Innosuisse, the DST's Swiss counterpart.

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