Undersea robot delivers baby coral to Great Barrier Reef

By Folake Dosu  |  December 21, 2018

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The Great Barrier Reef is an ecological marvel that is struggling to maintain its striking biodiversity in the face of human-caused climate change. In an effort to save this ecosystem, Southern Cross University’s Professor Peter Harrison and Queensland University of Technology’s Professor Matthew Dunbabin in Australia has piloted an undersea robot to aid in coral restoration, QUT reports.

The LarvalBot dispersed microscopic coral larvae to aid scientists who are repopulating parts of the Great Barrier Reef during its annual mass coral spawning. 

“This year represents a big step up for our larval restoration research and the first time we’ve been able to capture coral spawn on a bigger scale using large floating spawn catchers then rearing them into tiny coral larvae in our specially constructed larval pools and settling them on damaged reef areas,” Professor Harrison said to QUT.

This groundbreaking trial took place on Vlasoff Reef, near Cairns in north Queensland, six weeks after the team won the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s $300,000 Out of the Blue Box Reef Innovation Challenge.

“Winning the GBRF’s Reef Innovation Challenge meant that we could increase the scale of the work planned for this year using mega-sized spawn catchers and fast track an initial trial of LarvalBot as a novel method of dispersing the coral larvae out on to the Reef,” Professor Harrison added.

Professor Dunbabin described the LarvalBot as “an underwater crop duster” that operates gently enough to not disturb existing coral.

Currently, the robot has the capacity to carry around 100,000 coral larvae per mission, but ultimately the scientists plan to scale this up to millions of larvae.

“Using an iPad to program the mission, a signal is sent to deliver the larvae and it is gently pushed out by LarvalBot. It’s like spreading fertilizer on your lawn. The robot is very smart, and as it glides along we target where the larvae need to be distributed so new colonies can form and new coral communities can develop.”

“During this year’s trial, the robot was tethered so it could be monitored precisely but future missions will see it operate alone and on a much larger scale,” Professor Dunbabin told QUT. “Using an iPad to program the mission, a signal is sent to deliver the larvae and it is gently pushed out by LarvalBot. It’s like spreading fertilizer on your lawn. The robot is very smart, and as it glides along we target where the larvae need to be distributed so new colonies can form and new coral communities can develop.”

The scientists are not content to rest on their corals. Upon further research and testing, they plan to build upon the success of this initial trial and expand the use of the LarvalBot.

“We’ll be closely monitoring the progress of settled baby corals over coming months and working to refine both the technology and the technique to scale up further in 2019,” Professor Harrison said.

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