Dr. Chris Lowe adds new arsenal in his study of sharks

Published September 5, 2019

The amateur drone video shows a shark moving eerily close to unsuspecting swimmers. As the footage continues, the drone owner, a father, can be heard yelling for his family get out of the water.

That type of autonomous surveillance is what Dr. Chris Lowe and his Shark Lab researchers are banking on to keep beach-goers safe and sharks on their radar. Lowe is employing a multi-autonomous vehicle system to track and follow marine animals from above the ocean and below the water’s surface.

“Despite all the statistics you hear about the probability of being bitten by a shark (approximately 1 in 3.75 million), we actually have no real statistics because we don’t know how many people go in the water.”

The new technology will allow Lowe to study the sharks’ behavior and whether sharks tend to attack when provoked or not. In the case of the family, the shark did not attack and everyone was safe.

“As part of this study, we know there are times when sharks are in the water with people and the next question is what influences do we have on their behavior?” Lowe said. “So we can use that drone footage to see the proximity of sharks to people – do they move toward people, do they move away from people, or do they completely ignore people?”

Shark Lab drone

Lowe’s team will rely heavily on its own drone footage, and will collaborate with fire, police and even some television stations to track sharks. Dr. Ju Cheol Moon, a professor in the computer science department, has developed machine algorithms that can identify surfers, boogie boarders and swimmers, which will streamline the process.

Lowe also is working with Computer Engineering professor Dr. Alvaro Monge, who along with a graduate student, has constructed data bases to store the information.

“By gathering this data, we can better adjust those statistics about your chances of being bitten by a shark,” Lowe said. “I expect the risk to be much lower.”

In addition to the drones, Lowe and his team have developed an underwater robot that resembles a yellow torpedo that will “listen” with transmitters for tagged sharks. The torpedo, named "RV O'Donnell" after Assemblymember Patrick O'Donnell, will record the time, date, and location, in addition to identifying the number of the sharks. O'Donnell helped secure $3.75 million for Shark Lab research.

“When we used them together (aerial and underwater autonomous vehicles), we can provide aerial maps of where the sharks are,” he said.

Lowe said there is little data that tells researchers where and when sharks gather along the California coast.

“Our goal is to survey all the beaches in Southern California this summer,” Lowe said. “That way we can map them and start to construct what the environment looks like. This way, we can build these 3D maps and ask why are they sharks here and not there?

“We can start to figure out what environmental features are they queueing on, so that lifeguards can uses that information."