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Whale Safe project tests AI-equipped buoys to reduce ship collisions

AI software that monitors sounds from bright yellow buoys could reduce whale numbers by identifying whale species and pod locations. Scientists then verify the data and relay that information to ships passing nearby so they can avoid the animals. The Whale Safe project was launched by Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory and partners, with the first Whale Safe systems already deployed in the Santa Barbara Canal near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Each buoy has an onboard computer that records whale sounds using an underwater microphone. An AI algorithm then detects the clicks and screeches of specific whale species before sending the data via satellite every two hours, where a scientist will review the software’s results to verify that the whale sounds are correctly identified. The location of the animals is then calculated by analyzing water conditions (via a separate machine learning model) and local records of whale sightings. If a ship is within the calculated trajectory of the animals, a notification can be made to warn the crew.

More than 80 endangered whales are killed each year by ship strikes in the West Coast region

More than 50 percent of all US container traffic goes through ports on the West Coast. Scientists estimate that more than 80 endangered whales of a variety of native species, such as blue, fin, humpback and gray, are killed each year by ship attacks in the region as they migrate to feeding grounds. “Whale strikes continue to be a leading cause of death for endangered whales, but with these new types of monitoring technology and warning systems, fatalities have begun to decline,” said Marc Benioff, Salesforce chairman and co-CEO.

The Whale Safe Project Team

The Whale Safe project is a collaboration of marine scientists at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, who are developing systems to reduce whale deaths from ship collisions.
Image: Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory

Benioff and his wife Lynne helped create the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, a philanthropic venture led by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The organization has a three-step process to resolve ocean-related environmental problems submitted by the community and then organize the required scientists and funding to solve them. The organization is led by Douglas McCauley, professor of ocean science at UCSB. “Different whale populations have different dialects,” McCauley told The register. “In order for this AI to work in California, the AI ​​had to be trained specifically using calls from these California whales.”

The AI ​​algorithm has some whale accents to brush up on. The team hopes to deploy more AI-powered buoys in other U.S. coastal areas such as Seattle, Vancouver and San Diego, and has not ruled out the possibility that the Whale Safe project could one day have global reach to more international regions.

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