• Marine scientists are using AI and drones to better understand the habits and movements of sharks.
  • Artificial intelligence can identify different shark types on video footage and warn officials of pending danger.
  • A growing information database can help avoid future attacks. It can also assist efforts to preserve species in future.

Despite their menacing big-screen presence, sharks rarely attack humans. Meanwhile, man-made pressures including habitat loss, overfishing and illegal fishing cause untold damage to shark populations – it’s estimated 100 million are killed by humans every year.

It’s vital we protect sharks and their key role in ocean health as well as ensuring the water is safe for coastal communities. And a number of organizations are using technology to help boost our understanding in this area.

Among those doing so is a team of oceanographers in California, who are collaborating with AI specialists to observe the behaviour and habits of sharks to help conservation efforts.


But spotting great white sharks isn’t easy from the water, so Doug McCauley and his team of researchers from the Benioff Ocean Initiative at University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), have taken to the skies. Project SharkEye uses drone technology to fly above the waves and record what’s happening in the ocean below.

A shark underwater.
Drones and AI are being used to spot great white sharks in California.
Image: Reuters

Working with experts from Salesforce AI Research and data scientists from San Diego State University, the project has created a bespoke AI model that understands sharks and identifies different species using the creature’s length.

Video footage captured by drones is scanned using Salesforce’s Einstein Vision AI tool to identify great white sharks caught on camera, with around 95% accuracy, the team says. Sightings are shared with local public safety officials and beach communities to help prevent attacks.

Information on shark movements is also fed into a database that allows marine scientists to more fully understand shark habits and movements and predict when shark activity is likely to occur, which helps conservation efforts. The shark database could also help marine scientists understand the impact of climate change on marine environments and the resulting effect on shark habits.

Caught on camera

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Drones are also part of a high-tech package being used by researchers from the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach. They’re conducting a two-year study analysing sharks’ behaviour and looking at aggression levels in different species.

Once a drone flight spots a shark while patrolling southern California’s beaches, the operator relays the position to colleagues who arrive by boat. They then attach a transmitter to the animal’s dorsal area, which tracks its real-time position in the ocean.

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.

Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.

"The goal is to better understand shark biology and behaviour and to not just give that information to lifeguards who have to make public safety decisions, but to the public who have to decide where that risk is and when is it most appropriate to exercise caution versus when they don't need to," Shark Lab's Director Chris Lowe told Reuters.

Where shark attacks are most common.
Where shark attacks are most common.
Image: Statista

Unprovoked shark attacks are rare, but every year some surfers, beachgoers and other ocean users are injured or killed by sharks. Countries with long, often tropical, coastlines and islands have seen the most attacks in the past 300 years. In that time, almost 1,500 unprovoked attacks were recorded in the US, more than double Australia’s tally of 652.

Technologies like AI and drones can help researchers gain a better understanding of when, where and why such attacks take place and find ways to avoid them in future. This type of cooperation between tech companies and researchers helps build a more sustainable future that contributes to keeping people safe, while at the same time helping shark populations recover.

The role of technology in assisting more sustainable development will be a focus of the World Economic Forum’s upcoming Sustainable Development Impact Summit.