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Romancing the Reef

The world’s first robotic-vision empowered coral reef protector, RangerBot, is aglow after literally helping to share the love in an IVF coral regeneration program on the Great Barrier Reef.

Only the world’s biggest coral reef. So great, in fact, that it’s the only living structure visible from outer space; the size of Japan, stretching 2,300km along Queensland’s coast.


RangerBot-turned LarvalBot creator, Professor Matthew Dunbabin, a Chief Investigator with the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, last week returned from a monumental field trip to the Great Barrier Reef timed during Mother Nature’s annual splendour of coral spawning. A phenomenon best described as the Mount Everest of reproduction in nature.

Photo: Great Barrier Reef Foundation / Gary Cranitch Queensland Museum

His mission? To put two LarvalBots to work in a world-first IVF coral regeneration program, spearheaded by Southern Cross University (SCU), delivering baby coral (or larvae) following incubation in a floating nursery of purpose-built rearing ponds on the reef.

Photo: Biopixel

The overall project led by SCU marine biologist Professor Peter Harrison – an expert in coral reproduction ecology who, in 1981, was part of a research team that discovered the mass coral spawning phenomenon on the Great Barrier Reef – aims to restore damaged parts of the World Heritage-listed wonder, ultimately speeding up recovery of precious ecosystems affected by coral bleaching.

Read the project media release for full details>>

“Everything went to plan despite challenging weather,” said Professor Dunbabin of his part in the project funded through a $300,000 award by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Out of the Blue Box Reef Innovation Challenge supported by Tiffany & Co. Foundation.

“For me, it’s the best Christmas present ever, to be able to help rebuild the world’s greatest natural wonder.”

Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

Over the past few months, the roboticist and ardent conservationist has worked tirelessly with his team to transform RangerBot into LarvalBot, building innovative and ‘life-giving’ attachments in his Lab at QUT, where the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision is headquartered.

Ticked off his ‘To Do’ list: a ‘coral baby’ sling of sorts, complete with bladder, rigging and a triggered release mechanism allowing larvae to be dispersed across the widest possible area, with the potential to cover 1,500 sq.m/hour per robot.

Fittingly, the revamp of RangerBot, which won the 2016 Google Impact Challenge People’s Choice prize as a high-tech, low-cost autonomous underwater robot, largely utilises everyday items from local camping and hardware stores.

In the not too distant future Professor Dunbabin hopes RangerBot, equipped with robotic vision as its superpower, will be affordable enough for use in global citizen science projects to help monitor and protect the world’s reef environments, similar to accessibility of drones.

“RangerBot is the world’s first underwater robotic system designed specifically for coral reef environments, using only robotic vision for real-time navigation, obstacle avoidance and complex science missions,” Professor Dunbabin said.

“Its transformation into LarvalBot has been a successful test of functionality. What’s also exciting is RangerBot can map expansive underwater areas at scales not previously possible, making it a valuable tool for reef research and management.”

RangerBot and its predecessor, COTSbot (created in 2015 and currently on display at Queensland Museum), are nothing short of a labour of love for Professor Dunbabin, who has spent more than a decade devising and refining the technology.

Along the way, he’s put holes in the family pool (when first testing COTSbot), turned his son’s tricycle into a robot and even snuck night sensors on to the roof of his wife’s car for testing.

Small sacrifices for the roboticist who is passionate about creating robots to help save the world and protect natural environments.

A roboticist who describes himself as akin to the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the fictitious alien fish that performs instant translations – Professor Dunbabin reckons his greatest talent lies in his ability to bridge the gap between technical robotics and the natural sciences and how one can help the other.

Did you know? Coral spawning takes place for just a few days each year on the Great Barrier Reef in late spring or early summer. An event described by Sir David Attenborough as the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’! Timed just after a full moon, and in spectacular synchronisation, trillions of eggs and sperm are released into the ocean, rising to the surface and forming a planula larva that drifts until re-settling on the ocean floor to mature.

Photo: Gary Cranitch Queensland Museum

How the LarvalBots performed: once Mother Nature worked her magic, the Southern Cross University-led project captured and transferred large volumes of spawn into floating mesh ‘coral rearing’ pools until larvae was ready to be re-settled. The two LarvalBots, fitted with dispersal bladders (filled with larvae), were put to work, following preselected paths, guided by robotic vision, holding a constant altitude across the reef. Playing a hands-on role in the process, Professor Dunbabin remote triggered the release of larvae to maximise efficiency of dispersal.

Images and video available for download here.

And Finally! RangerBot2 – one of the two robots that moonlighted as LarvalBots on the Great Barrier Reef – has jetted off on a working holiday to Hawaii; modified to step up as ‘Thunder4’ in the coveted biennial competition, Maritime RobotX Challenge. Read more>>

About The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision
The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision is an ARC Centre of Excellence, funded for $25.6 million over seven years to form the largest collaborative group of its kind generating internationally impactful science and new technologies that will transform important Australian industries and provide solutions to some of the hard challenges facing Australia and the globe. Formed in 2014, the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision is the world’s first research centre specialising in robotic vision. They are a group of researchers on a mission to develop new robotic vision technologies to expand the capabilities of robots. Their work will give robots the ability to see and understand for the sustainable well-being of people and the environments we live in. The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision has assembled an interdisciplinary research team from four leading Australian research universities: QUT, The University of Adelaide (UoA), The Australian National University (ANU), and Monash University as well as CSIRO’s Data61 and overseas universities and research organisations including INRIA Rennes Bretagne, Georgia Institute of Technology, Imperial College London, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, University of Toronto, and the University of Oxford.

PostedDecember 13, 2018

Australian Centre for Robotic Vision
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