JCU to trial stinger spotting drones in world-first study

In a world-first study, Cairns scientists are using drones to detect the deadly box jellyfish. 

James Cook University researchers say the drones could be used as an early warning system, as well as reduce the region’s reliance on stinger nets.

Project lead Olivia Rowley will continue to trial the technology she describes as “fast, effective and cheap” with surf life saving hubs in Cairns, Port Douglas and others along the state’s coast.

The research, published today, focused on Chironex fleckeri – a large jellyfish capable of killing a human in under three minutes.

Responsible for over 60 deaths in Australian waters in the past 70 years, the jellyfish is considered the world’s most venomous species.

Chironex fleckeri is found in waters off northern Australia from October to May, when its liking for shallow, calm, coastal waters can put it on a collision course with swimmers,” said PhD candidate and project lead Olivia Rowley.

“Drone surveillance could help make our beaches safer, and reduce our reliance on time-consuming drag netting by life savers.”

Ms Rowley and a team from the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine first trialled the technology in waters around Weipa. 

Before flying the drones they deployed 70-metre nets in the area. 

The drone pilot then recorded the numbers of jellyfish spotted in each flight, which were later compared with the netted numbers.


“The attraction of these devices is that they are more affordable, easily transported, and easier to use,” Ms Rowley said.

“They don’t require as much training and licensing as the higher-end versions and a large number of surf lifesaving clubs, particularly in Australia, already have them in their kit for rip identification, and crocodile and shark spotting.”

After comparing the recordings and reviewing flight footage, the researchers confirmed the drones delivered high detection rates. 

“This has huge implications. Most, if not all, beaches worldwide, from Japan to Europe and beyond, have issues with very harmful jellyfish and presently there's no way of telling if animals are there until someone gets stung,” Ms Rowley said.

“This project really highlights the capacity for drones as early warning systems. Using drones is fast, effective and cheap and helps keep those on the front line out of the water and out of harm’s way.”

The stinger spotter drone trial will continue over the next month in Cairns, Port Douglas and other locations along the Queensland coast.