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Robots Are Collecting Data, Killing Predators on the Great Barrier Reef

Scientists are deploying drones and other technologies to gather essential information on the world’s largest coral reef system in a race to save a crucial ecosystem from the effects of climate change.

Written by Paul Tullis Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Great barrier reef wave glider
A Wave Glider during its recent mission to collect data on the Great Barrier Reef.Australian Institute of Marine Science

Modeling reefs in 3D. Mapping the seafloor with yndonIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). Fighting illegal fishing with big data. From Iceland to the Cook Islands, scientists, governments and navies are leveraging technology to observe, monitor and learn about the ocean with the hope of conserving it as a resource for food, energy and tourism.

The hot spot for technological deployments at sea seems to be the Great Barrier Reef, which has suffered devastating back-to-back bleaching events over the past three years as ocean temperatures have risen due to climate change. Bleaching has affected nearly 70 percent of the 1,400-mile-long (2,300 km) reef, killing two-thirds of the corals in its northern section. Covering 133,000 square miles (344,000 sq km) – about the size of Germany – the reef is home to 9,000 species, the destination for 2 million tourists and generates some $5 billion in economic activity for Australia each year. Given its outsize environmental and economic importance, the Great Barrier Reef is a bellwether for reefs worldwide that face extinction from climate change.

“We need to be able to answer questions about the reef’s current state, and where it’s heading,” said Lyndon Llewellyn, research program leader for data and technology innovation at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a government agency. “And we need to go beyond observation to have enough data so we can devise solutions.”

Llewellyn recently worked with Silicon Valley-based Liquid Robotics, a division of Boeing that makes the Wave Glider, an wave-and-solar-powered robot about the size of a surfboard. One sensor-laden Wave Glider recently completed a seven-day mission to the Great Barrier Reef, traveling across 230 miles (370km) off the coast of north Queensland to collect data on wave heights, water salinity, pH levels, chlorophyll and weather conditions.

The COTSbot, a robot that terminates coral-killing crown-of-thorns starfish. (Queensland University of Technology)

At the other end of the continent, Mark Underwood, an engineer with the Australian government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, deploys an underwater robot called the Starbug X to assess and map seafloor habitat, measuring basic parameters such as levels of dissolved oxygen, temperature and salinity.

Underwood, based in Hobart, Tasmania, has also placed genomic sensors on moorings to take water samples at programmed times to pinpoint outbreaks of invasive species and the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), a coral-killer native to the region that has grown in population in recent years. In a separate effort, engineers at the Queensland University of Technology designed a robot called the COTSbot to kill the lethal echinoderm. Underwood hopes to use the Saildrone, an autonomous wind-and-solar powered robot, to make rapid transects between the 3,000 reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef, and eventually to place genomic sensors on microchips to process samples immediately.

Llewellyn pointed to several advantages that the Wave Glider gives scientists. “Many different sorts of data can be generated from it, and you get it pretty much in real time,” he said. “You can adapt the course in response to need, and you can interrogate it to see how the mission is going. It’s generating data 24/7, and if I want to see how it’s going I can log in from my phone or laptop pretty much anywhere in the world.” The recent mission was piloted from Hawaii, while Llewellyn watched on his computer in Queensland.

Aquatic automated vehicles increase scientists’ productivity and expand coverage areas for data collection by exploring places too dangerous for humans – and by working hours not even the hardiest scuba diver could manage.

“We’re trying to eliminate risk by having a platform we can place in areas [that are] materially dangerous, where there are crocodiles, sharks or stingers or other creatures that are potentially harmful, but also areas where it’s deeper or darker or further, to try and extend the range of what we can do,” Underwood said.

The Starbug X is designed to replace divers. Equipped with two-to-four cameras placed on side-by-side hulls, each about the size of a suitcase, it can be delivered around the world via air freight. Each hull’s cameras provide stereoscopic, 3D vision. “I can look at the range of marine organisms” where the Starbug travels, Underwood said, “and quantify and size them.” Scientists specializing in coral use the Starbug to check on the health of different species and then check back to see how they’re responding to warming events or recovering from bleaching, he added.

The Starbug investigates the seafloor in Australia. (CSIRO)

While Llewellyn and Underwood collect data with robots, researchers at James Cook University place multi-beam sonar equipment aboard traditional surface ships to map the seafloor beneath the reef, and the Australian Navy and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have set up LIDAR on aircraft to map the coral itself and to distinguish healthy reefs from damaged ones, according to CNET.

Despite the recent developments, challenges remain. Working in environments with significant tidal flow is a big one, Llewellyn said. “When there’s a wave surge, humans can see what’s happening and brace themselves. But unless the UAV [underwater autonomous vehicle] has that sort of capability it’s at the mercy of the seas.” Llewellyn and colleagues are working to improve visioning instruments so that robots can get the same quality of imagery as does a human operating a camera. Worse than having useless photos is the prospect of damaging the reef, which could happen if tides sent the vehicle crashing into corals.

The range and adaptability of underwater and surface autonomous vehicles such as the Starbug X and the Wave Glider are helping scientists identify areas on the Great Barrier Reef that need to be better managed. “You can’t answer those questions without knowing what’s happening across the entire reef,” Llewellyn said, noting that robots provide just a piece of the puzzle.

He would like to see a satellite devoted full-time to monitoring the reef with hyperspectral imagery. “We’re working toward a whole systematic approach of updating our observation of the reef, with better things in space, the sky, on the surface and in the water,” Llewellyn said.

The Wave Glider, not coincidentally, can function as a communications platform, taking acoustic signals from underwater and sending them to shore using a satellite or cellular data connection.

Llewellyn sees the deployment of technology on the Great Barrier Reef as a model for what can be done in marine protected areas worldwide, which President Barack Obama expanded in his final months in office to include one of the largest protected places on Earth. Indeed, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument will be one of the sites of a partnership, announced on Oct. 17, between Liquid Robotics and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to deploy Wave Gliders to monitor national marine sanctuaries in the Pacific Islands.

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