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Special delivery! Robotic helper for baby coral

By David, 8 November 2018 News

Image of two small robots releasing a cloud of coral polyps over a dead area of reef.

The LarvalBot will help bring new coral to damaged areas of the reef. Image: Queensland University of Technology

The Great Barrier Reef has had a rough time. Rising temperatures , storms and attacks from crown of thorn starfish are among the problems damaging the reef. This year, scientists are aiming to supercharge its recovery with a new robotic helper.

Left to its own devices, the reef will try to regrow. Once a year, corals release eggs and sperm into the ocean at the same time, known as spawn. Most of the spawn will be eaten or washed out to sea, but a lucky few develop and find a suitable spot to grow and continue the reef.

This year, the reef will have assistance from an underwater drone. Queensland University of Technology and Southern Cross University worked together to create LarvalBot to help corals settle and grow.

Image of hundreds of tiny coral polyps floating in the water.

Coral spawn in huge quantities, once per year.
Image: Gary Cranitch, Queensland Museum

Here’s how it works. Spawning is predicted to occur late November. During this time, scientists will capture hundreds of millions of spawn and keep them safe from predators until they are old enough to settle down, which takes about a week. Then the baby corals – known as larvae – will be loaded onto LarvalBot, ready for planting.

The robot will follow a preselected path, while human operators keep an eye on proceedings. When they see an area that needs more coral, they tell the robot to gently squirt some larvae in the right direction. When the larvae settle on bare rocks, they transform into coral polyps, ready to start building the reef.

LarvalBot isn’t the first robot to patrol the reef. In fact, this gentle robot has a dark past. It’s based on the COTSbot, a robotic assassin trained to kill the destructive crown of thorns starfish. But the gentle gardener and the lethal assassin are both working for the same goal – a safe and healthy reef.

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