A SOPHISTICATED drone capable of spotting sharks and alerting swimmers could be the new answer to the shark threat at Ballina's Lighthouse Beach following last week's shelving of the eco barrier.
The "Mini Ripper" drone is fitted with a video camera, loudspeaker and an emergency pod containing lifesaving equipment capable of being dropped into the ocean remotely.
A demonstration of the drone was conducted at Shelly Beach this week to much acclaim.
Westpac-sponsored trials of a related drone, the "Little Ripper", were conducted at Byron Bay and other locations along the coast earlier this year and Premier Mike Baird hailed the technology then as the "future of rescue" in NSW.
Both drones have been fitted with a lifesaving rescue "marine pod", which includes a water activated inflatable lifebuoy, a SharkShield electromagnetic shark repellent, plus a whistle and sea anchor.
They are battery operated and boast an hour of flight time, while a petrol version of the Little Ripper will fly for 2.5 hours.
The Mini Ripper also has a megaphone which can warn swimmers of an approaching threat.
Research is also under way with the University of Technology in Sydney to fit the video camera with "deep learning" software which would allow it to recognise a shark in the water automatically.
The idea is the brainchild of one of the most distinguished individuals in the history of Australian surf lifesaving, Order of Australia recipient and publisher Kevin Weldon.
Mr Weldon was the founding president of International Lifesaving and according to his CV, some of the major technological initiatives of surf lifesaving, the rubber ducky inflatable, torpedo rescue tubes, and the Westpac helicopter, were introduced to Australian beaches during his tenure.
If the drones were to be introduced to Ballina's beaches, they would be operated out of surf life saving clubs, with volunteer lifesavers trained in their use.
Surf Life Saving Far North Coast duty officer Garry Meredith said he was "blown away" after seeing the drone in action over Shelly Beach on the weekend.
"(The pilot) took it off from the Shelly Beach surf club, he went out over a couple of swimmers in the water.
"We used the PA to tell the system we were going to drop a flotation device. He's hit a button, it's dropped, hit the water and inflated.
"The swimmers brought it back to the beach for us.
"If they can get it moving, it's definitely going to only help us."
Ballina mayor David Wright said he wanted to see something urgently deployed to Lighthouse Beach in time for spring-summer and the drones appeared to fit the bill.
Cr Wright said the hexa-rotor drone would be ideal to patrol Lighthouse Beach while Nippers was on.
"My job is try to secure what we can for the safety of the people of Ballina," he said.
"This thing does everything, it's just so easy to deploy.
"At the moment I can't think of anything better."
The company Little Ripper Lifesaver, is aiming to have a Mini Ripper stationed at every surf life saving club in Australia.
It is also in talks with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to allow its Little Ripper to fly out of line of sight, giving it a huge capability in longer range shark spotting and other patrol and emergency missions.