Featured Image for Meet LarvalBot, the little robot trying to bring the Great Barrier Reef back to life
Science

Meet LarvalBot, the little robot trying to bring the Great Barrier Reef back to life

A few years ago, a claim supposedly made by scientists stated the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s most cherished natural wonders, was in fact ‘officially’ dead.

Now, while this sweeping comment has since been debunked as not entirely true, it did raise awareness surrounding the reef’s current state of health, which is far from rosy.

Thanks to the effects of climate change, the reef is suffering from unprecedented levels of coral bleaching, which causes the reef to resemble something closer to a ghost town than a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life. Sadly, the reef is in danger of losing more coral if precautionary measures aren’t taken.

Although we started on a bad note, I’m here as the bearer of good news! As of last week, groundbreaking new technology is now being used to give our reef a helping hand.

Reef and fish

In a media release, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) revealed that in a world first, an undersea robot dispersed microscopic baby corals (coral larvae) throughout the reef in a bid to turn the tides of fate.

The little helper, known as LarvalBot, was developed by a team headed by QUT’s Professor Matthew Dunbabin and Southern Cross University’s Professor Peter Harrison. The robot was deployed for the first time on Vlasoff Reef, near Cairns in North Queensland.

This innovative project comes just six weeks after Harrison and Dunbabin won the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s $300,000 Out of the Blue Box Reef Innovation Challenge, proving that the right decision was made.

The project follows on from Harrison’s larval reseeding technique, which was first trialled on the Southern Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017. Harrison says:

“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.

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.”

LarvalBot is currently able to carry around 100,000 coral larvae per mission, but will soon be able to carry a lot more – perhaps even millions more. After the little bot releases the larvae, it settles onto the damaged reef areas and will, over time, develop into new coral polyps or baby corals.

Is this not the most beautiful thing you’ve read all day?

Professor Dunbabin describes the process:

“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 fertiliser 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.”

Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden commented on how incredible it was to see this project move from concept to implementation so quickly, particularly due to the recent concerns that we only have a very short window in which to act before the reef is beyond helping.

The official title of the initiative is the 2018 Larval Restoration Project, and you can be certain that we’ll be following their progress with bated breath! You can keep watch by following the links on their website and by signing up to become a coral reef citizen.

Lead Image Credit: The 2018 Larval Restoration Project

Leave a comment