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Robot aids the Great Barrier Reef by delivering coral larvae

Credit: Queensland University of Technology

Nature has received a boost from a robot that delivers heat-tolerant coral larvae directly onto the Great Barrier Reef.

As reported, an undersea robot has dispersed microscopic baby corals (coral larvae) in order to help scientists working to repopulate parts of the Great Barrier Reef during the mass coral spawning event.

The ground-breaking initiative was trialled on Vlasoff Reef, near Cairns in north Queensland six weeks after winning the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Out of the Blue Box Reef Innovation Challenge prize of A$ 300,000.

The Queensland University of Technology’s RangerBot was engineered by the University’s Professor Matthew Dunbabin into the LarvalBot specifically for the coral project restoration project.

The coral restoration project, led by Southern Cross University’s Professor Peter Harrison, builds on his successful larval reseeding technique piloted on the southern Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.

This is a big step for the larval restoration research as this is the first time the team have been able to capture coral spawn on a bigger scale using large floating spawn catchers.

After capturing, they would then rear them into tiny coral larvae in specially constructed larval pools and settling them on damaged reef areas.

With further research and refinement, this technique has enormous potential to operate across large areas of reef and multiple sites in a way that has not been possible previously.

The robot gently releases the larvae onto damaged reef areas, allowing it to settle and over time develop into coral polyps or baby corals.

It has a current capacity to carry around 100,000 coral larvae per mission with plans to scale up to millions of larvae.

The LarvalBot could be compared to ‘an underwater crop duster’ operating very safely to ensure existing coral was not disturbed.

The robot was tethered during the trial so that it could be monitored precisely. However, future missions will see it operate alone and on a much larger scale.

An iPad is used to program the mission. A signal is sent to deliver the larvae and it is gently pushed out by LarvalBot. It can be compared to spreading fertiliser on the lawn.

The robot is very smart. As it glides along, they are able to target where the larvae need to be distributed so new colonies can form and new coral communities can develop.

This project builds on the work by Professor Dunbabin who developed RangerBot to help control the coral-killing crown-of-thorns starfish which is responsible for 40% of the reef’s decline in coral cover.

Following the success of this initial trial in 2018, the researchers plan to fully implement their challenge-winning proposal in 2019.

They plan on building even larger mega spawn-catchers and solar powered floating larval incubation pools designed to rear hundreds of millions of genetically diverse, heat-tolerant coral larvae to be settled on damaged reefs through a combination of larval clouds and LarvalBots.

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