Whale cow and calf. Drone image by Alex Jones/DPIE

Watching out for whales: Australian tech gives new eyes to ships

5 March 2021
Seismic searching can cause loud noise detrimental to whales
University of Sydney researchers have joined forces with industry and the NSW Smart Sensing Network to give sight to marine oil and gas exploration vessels to help protect whale populations.
Scientific lead on the project, Associate Professor Eleanor Bruce.

Scientific lead on the project, Associate Professor Eleanor Bruce.

A collaboration between Earth Ocean and Space, ArborCarbon and University of Sydney scientists will assess the feasibility of an innovative system to automate real-time detection of whales onboard seismic survey ships.

The team has received $94,654 in the latest round of the federal government’s Business Research and Innovation Initiative (BRII) grants.

 Seismic survey ships find oil and gas resources by firing air guns that release compressed air into the ocean. Regulations to protect whale hearing from the noise require the air guns to be shut down when whales come closer than a certain specified distance.

Marine mammal observers on the ships keep a continual lookouts for whales and warn when whales are approaching as well as estimating their distances.

Associate Professor Eleanor Bruce from the University of Sydney Marine Studies Institute and School of Geosciences said currently the detection of whales at sea relies on trained onboard observers who are only able to survey during daylight hours.

“Accurate detection of whales at night and under poor visibility is a key issue that is lacking a viable solution,” Associate Professor Bruce said.

“Improving round-the-clock detection rates will minimise potential harm to whales from vessel sound and potential collision.”

The researchers believe the BRII funding provides an opportunity to demonstrate the feasibility of translating this leading-edge research on thermal sensing, whale behaviour, machine learning and robotic engineering into tangible solutions for improving whale detection at sea.

“Whales can be detected if they are on the surface of the water, most commonly by their large exhalations [blows],” Associate Professor Bruce said.

“These blows are warmer than the surrounding environment, so they are easily detectable with a thermal infrared camera.”

The adoption of smart sensing technologies specifically designed for operational marine environments enhances the accuracy of whale detection, location and identification during night time surveys.

Fieldwork by University of Sydney PhD student Alexandra Jones has been instrumental in this project. Through the Australian Research Council's Training Centre for CubeSats, UAVs and their Applications (CUAVA), Ms Jones is using drone technology to study whale migration in Jervis Bay and the effectiveness of drone-deployed thermal sensing technology.

NSSN Environment & AgTech Theme Leader Dr Tomonori Hu has also brought his thermal sensing expertise to this project.

“Tomonori Hu’s expertise in optical sensor technologies, optical pointing systems and the commercialisation of research will be an asset to our team,” Associate Professor Bruce said.

“This work is highly technical and the resolution and effectiveness of these sensors will ultimately impact on how successful our system will be for rapid automated detection of whales at sea.”

The feasibility study is currently in progress and field-testing has begun in Jervis Bay to capture thermal images of dolphins as whale season has not yet started.

The team has three months to complete and deliver the feasibility study to BRII. If successful, the team may receive up to $1 million to take the concept to the development and commercialisation stage. 

The project team includes Associate Professor Eleanor Bruce, Dr Edwina Tanner, Professor Doug Cato, Associate Professor KC Wong, Dr Tomonori Hu, Dr Kevin Davies, Alex Jones and Scott Sheehan.


This study was funded by the federal government’s Business Research and Innovation Initiative (BRII).

Eleanor Bruce

Associate Professor, School of Geosciences

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