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Surfing Robot Tells Scientists Where the Sharks Are

Stanford University marine biologists are using a surfing robot to track the migratory patterns of great white sharks.

Surfers may unwillingly be the first to know when a great white shark approaches the shore, but it's now the full-time job of a robotic surfer to keep tabs on these aquatic predators. Researchers at Stanford University have enlisted a Wave Glider robot in their efforts to track the migratory patterns of great white sharks off the California coast, near San Francisco. They're bringing that data into the non-scientist's pocket with a shark-tracking iPhone app to raise awareness for their work.


According to the BBC, Stanford marine scientists Barbara Block became "infatuated" with the idea of using a surfing robot to help track sharks when she found out about the design by Silicon Valley company Liquid Robotics. Block’s team has spent the past 12 years tracking the migratory patterns of sharks by placing acoustic tags on the animals that send a signal to a receiver when they pass within 1,500 feet. Those signals have allowed researchers to create models of the thousand-mile routes that great whites swim, from Hawaii to Northern California to down near Baja, Mexico.

"Our goal is to use revolutionary technology that increases our capacity to observe our oceans and census populations, improve fisheries management models, and monitor animal responses to climate change," says Dr. Block.

Their latest technology will streamline efforts to gather real-time information about a shark’s locations. Like the conventional receiver technology, the surfing robot will receive audio information from the shark’s tags, but then it will propel itself forward through the water to follow the animal in an unobtrusive manner. The surfboard part acts like a WiFi hotspot, pinging the research team with the latest data about the sharks’ movements.

The flow of information won’t stop once it hits the lab. The Stanford team has released a new iPhone and iPad app called Shark Net to model the sharks’ patterns and offer real-time notifications when the robot crosses paths with certain sharks. "The idea behind the app is to allow everyone to explore the places where these sharks live, and to get to know them just like their friends on Facebook," Stanford marine biologist Randy Kochevar said in a press release.

Beyond being a great educational resource, introducing status updates from sharks into the public's news feeds may be a good step toward getting people to care about their conversation and the biodiversity value of the ocean's most notorious predator.

Photo courtesy of Kip Evans Photography

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