The surfing robot helping to save the Great Barrier Reef

Trial marks start of Australian Institute of Marine Science partnership with Boeing to monitor reef “from the seabed to space”

An autonomous floating robot packed with sensors has been deployed to monitor the waters surrounding the Great Barrier Reef.

The vehicle – called the Wave Glider – recently completed a seven-day, 200 nautical mile trial voyage of the central reef, to collect data for the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

The test expedition saw the vessel collect a range of meteorological and oceanographic data and relay it back to shore in real-time.

“We’re trying to observe something that’s 350,000 square kilometres in area – and up to 60 metres deep. That’s an interesting challenge,” AIMS’ head of data and technology innovation, Dr Lyndon Llewelyn told Computerworld.

“So we’re trying to modernise how we observe things, and technologies that operate robustly and routinely in marine environments are not common. This is one that has been emerging and is probably one of the most mature. It will be an important tool to advance our mission to better monitor the Great Barrier Reef,” he added.

The craft is made up of two parts, a three-metre surfboard covered in solar panels which carries the sensors and instruments, and a wave-powered underwater section on an eight-metre ‘umbilical cord’ that pulls it along.

Aboard the bot for the initial trial was a mini-weather station; an acoustic Doppler current profiler (“to measure ocean currents through the water columns so you know what the water is doing at different depths,” Llewelyn explained); wave monitors to measure wave climate; and instruments to measure water temperature, pressure, salinity and cleanliness.

The chlorophyll content of the water (a measure of the plankton in the water) and the amount of hydrocarbons (an indicator of oil spills and leaks) were also recorded.

The data was beamed back to AIMS’ labs near Townsville via Telstra’s data network, and over Wi-Fi when in range.

(l-r) AIMS' Scott Bainbridge with Daniel Merritt, Ricardo Puig, Michael de La Chapelle and Shahmi Suhaimee from Liquid Robotics.
(l-r) AIMS' Scott Bainbridge with Daniel Merritt, Ricardo Puig, Michael de La Chapelle and Shahmi Suhaimee from Liquid Robotics.

Bye buoys

The bot and ones like it could potentially replace the need for scientific instruments to be permanently buoyed offshore, which require maintenance and recharging.

“We moor instruments at sea and that data is beamed in to us from a surface buoy or we go and collect it. So every six to nine months we need to send our ships out and service them because the batteries run down and you get failing and things like that. That’s quite a complex operation,” Llewelyn said.

“So instead of doing that you tell this boat – go to that spot where we want to have a mooring and swim around in a circle. We can then have our ships and people doing other tasks rather than just servicing instruments.”

Multiple Wave Gliders could be deployed to work in tag-teams, surfing out to replace others that need to return to shore for maintenance, so a location has an unbroken data stream.

The Wave Glider
The Wave Glider

“The demonstration proves how autonomous systems like our Wave Glider can improve upon human-based environmental data collection methods while also being safe and affordable," said Boeing Autonomous Systems vice president and general manager Chris Raymond.

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Tags environmentboeingGreat Barrier ReefLiquid RoboticscoralAustralian Institute of Marine ScienceInsitu PacificAIMS

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