This Autonomous Drone Is Ready to Defend the Great Barrier Reef From Predators

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REEF RESCUER. 

The Great Barrier Reef has no shortage of enemies — global warming, ocean acidification, invasive predators. Now, it also has an ally in its corner: an autonomous underwater drone named RangerBot.

The reef-defending bot is the work of researchers from Queensland University of Technology, and after two years of development, it officially launched at the Reef HQ Aquarium in Townsville, Australia, on Friday.

A MULTIPURPOSE MACHINE. 

There’s a reason RangerBot has been compared to a Swiss army knife — it protects the reef in ways large and small. It can test the surrounding water quality, look for signs of coral bleaching, and detect pollution. It can also map the area around the reef faster than ever before, which could help with future research.

RangerBot can even intervene when a predator threatens the reef. Using its computer vision system, the bot can identify crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey upon coral. Once detected, the bot can then inject the starfish with vinegar or bile salts with a 99 percent accuracy, killing the pest.

It can also stay underwater three times as long as a human diver and isn’t thwarted by unfavorable weather conditions.

SCALING UP. 

The Reef HQ Aquarium will start by putting just one RangerBot into action. But the researchers purposefully designed the bot to be inexpensive enough so more could follow. Scaling up could dramatically improve our ability to monitor the reef.

A team of just six of the bots, for example, could cover the entire length of the reef 14 times in one year at an operating cost of about $720,000. By comparison, six human divers could only cover half the reef in that time — at a cost of $1.44 million.

And don’t forget, those bots would serve multiple purposes while most human divers typically focus on one task.

All the researchers are waiting on now is the completion of this additional testing and government approvals. After that, it might not be long before the Great Barrier Reef has an entire army of RangerBots defending it.

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Lani Vu