Millions of tiny corals on the Great Barrier Reef have a new mommy—an underwater robot christened the “LarvalBot.”
The black-and-yellow submersibles, which are roughly the length of a skateboard, are part of an ambitious project to conserve the Great Barrier Reef by seeding it with coral larvae, which can grow and help to regenerate damaged areas. The iconic ecosystem has suffered numerous coral bleaching events over the last two decades, overwhelmingly attributed to climate change.
The team recently collected hundreds of millions of coral spawn to rear into batches of baby corals. They’ll mature in floating ocean enclosures and, once developed (the process takes roughly one week), LarvalBot will disperse them over key areas of damaged reef.
“We concentrate the larvae and put some of these into LarvalBot to gently squirt the larvae onto dead reef areas allowing it to settle and transform into coral polyps or baby corals,” Peter Harrison, director of Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Center, said in a statement.
The semi-autonomous robots will follow preselected paths across the reef while someone manually triggers the larvae release. Each robot is capable of covering more than 16,000 square feet per hour.
“The surviving corals will start to grow and bud,” Harrison said, “and form new colonies which will grow large enough after about three years to become sexually reproductive and complete the life cycle.”
It’s unclear right now how successful the mission will be. But Harrison is confident in the technique, saying it has “the potential to revolutionize coral restoration on reefs worldwide.”
The LarvalBot is essentially a repurposed RangerBot—an underwater robot trained to identify and kill the invasive and coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish that has infested the Great Barrier Reef. The robot, which received funding from Google, kills the starfish by injecting them with a lethal substance.
The coral larvae release is slated to occur during the Great Barrier Reef’s massive spawning event this month.