‘Crop duster’ robot is helping reseed the Great Barrier Reef with coral

In a world first, an undersea robot developed by Australia’s Queensland University of Technology has delivered microscopic coral larvae to the Great Barrier Reef to help with its respawning. The breakthrough demonstration of the Larvalbot robot — which we first wrote about earlier this year — is a proof-of-concept which could one day be used to help rescue dying coral reefs around the world.

“This innovative project aims to increase the scale and efficiency of delivering microscopic coral larvae directly onto damaged sections of reefs, where many corals were killed during the 2016 and 2017 mass coral bleaching events,” Professor Peter Harrison, one of the chief investigators who helped lead the research, told Digital Trends. “The reason we need to do this is that the Great Barrier Reef, like most coral reefs around the world, is suffering from an ongoing loss of corals that are the foundation of these spectacularly beautiful and highly valuable coral reef systems. We need to intervene to increase the efficiency of restoring coral communities because many of these impacted reefs now have too few adult spawning corals left alive to recover naturally.”

larvalbot robot mission undersea great barrier reef underwater

Lavalbot is an aquatic robot, described by its creators as being akin to an “underwater crop duster.” It can be controlled from dry land using an iPad, which allows for its pilots to decide when the stream of coral larvae is pushed out. However, it could also operate autonomously using a bevy of onboard sensors. In its recent mission, it carried around 100,000 coral larvae. Over time, the plan is for this to be increased to millions.

So was the recent mission a success? “The larvae are microscopic — less than 1 millimeter long — so we can’t see the settled polyps on reef areas until they survive and grow to at least six to nine months old, when they usually become visible on the reef,” Harrison said. But all signs point the mission being a resounding success.

As for the next phase of the project, Harrison said that the team will be using Larvalbot as a part of similar reef restoration initiative in the Philippines in early 2019. It will then return to the Great Barrier Reef for its biggest mission to date later in the year.

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