What Shark Week teaches us about health sensors and other medtech


I love Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual mid-summer block of shark-related programming that just wrapped up. And now that my toddler is older, I finally have someone to watch it with me.

white shark dorsal fin tagging Shark Week

The dorsal fin of a white shark is tagged with a pop-up satellite tag. [Image by Phillip Colla, via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharks Week also has an interesting relationship to the latest medical technologies. Ocean researchers and production engineers involved with Shark Week are pretty much the experts in fitness tracking through wearable technology – all to collect data on feeding habits, exercise patterns and general health of sharks. They employ the latest in waterproof cameras, as well as applying sensors and lasers. Everything built needs to be lightweight or noninvasive so it won’t interfere with the animals’ natural habits.

Maybe think of them as “finbits.” (Feel free to groan.)

Some of the technology used for these activities is pretty sophisticated.

For example, three LTH500 Donut/Through Hole Load Cells supplied by Futek were used in  the Discovery Channel’s  “Shark School with Michael Phelps” by the engineers at Peacock Productions. By combining the IHH500 Digital Hand Held Display and IAC200 4 Channel Summing Junction Box with the load cell setup, the production team was able to accurately measure the force of the great white shark’s bite. The shark’s bite registered at 10,000 Newtons, which is equivalent to a car crashing into a wall at 100 miles per hour. The force reading was the first actual shark bite to register above 6,000 Newtons.

Various other sensors are used in shark tagging. One of the most valuable tools is a motion-sensing accelerometer. These are usually made with medical-grade, biocompatible titanium. The scientists pierce the shark fin (note sharks don’t have pain receptors like humans do, and their fins have regrowth properties similar to finger nails) and attach accelerometers to map hunting grounds. These tags are designed to detach and corrode either over the course of a few hours or within a year.

On “Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins” marine biologist Craig O’Connoll used miniaturized camera tags that detached from sawsharks after only a few hours and float to the surface. The data gathered from the detachable camera and the above-mentioned accelerometers showed researchers that the sharks swim incredible distances.

Incidentally, O’Connell has also employed a laser photogrammetry to noninvasively assess shark growth rates and site fidelity. Laser photogrammetry is currently used in some digital body-form capture, primarily face and body measurement, and motion recording (e.g., gait analysis).

One other medical-related trend I found interesting is that over the past few years, the data captured on animals has moved beyond professional researchers. Because of the accessibility of the basic technology, amateur researchers and fisherman have provided video of new or rare species. Therefore, social media provides an additional platform for scientists to gain habit and habitat insight into sharks.

Shark Week is over, but the technology used to by scientists continues to evolve. I’ll keep you posted if anything medtech-related happens on Meerkat Manor.


Hear from top executives at Abbott, Google, Boston Scientific, Medtronic and more at DeviceTalks Minnesota, June 4–5 in St. Paul.

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