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'Little Ripper' drones take flight to find sharks and save lives

A six-month trial could help stem shark attacks in New South Wales.

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After playing host to fourteen shark attacks last year, the Australian state of New South Wales has been eyeing up drones for help. The state government's new "shark strategy" calls for tiny aircraft to monitor the waters around southeast Australia, and that's what a $250,000 remote-controlled drone — affectionately named Little Ripper — will do for a six-month trial period.

Little Rippers can zip through the air for about two and a half hours before needed a recharge, and spend much of their time relaying live coastal video back to a two-person control team. In the event that team finds something, they can command their Ripper to drop a small payload of supplies including inflatable rafts and GPS beacons to aid rescuers and give victims a better shot at survival. While those people at the stick make up most of the Little Rippers' intelligence, a team at Sydney's University of Technology trying to give the drone some smarts of its own.

Their goal? To craft software that will help Ripper determine what kind of shark it's hovering over; that could be a huge step forward in helping rescuers figure out which situations require some aerial assistance. After all, while New South Wales has several shark species cruising its waters, only three kinds — bull sharks, tiger sharks and great whites — are responsible for most attacks on humans. When dangerous sharks are spotted, the Ripper could then pass that information straight to lifeguards and emergency services teams who can then get people out of potentially dangerous waters.

The Rippers have the potential to change how Australia protects its people from shark attacks, but we'll see how this six month test drive goes first. If all goes well, The Daily Telegraph reports, some 40 of these drones are expected to be doled out to Australia's Surf Life Saving Clubs in 2017.

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