With the progression of climate change, acidification of oceans and various predators seemingly unstoppable, the Great Barrier Reef needs allies. Could it find one in the tech industry?

A drone called RangerBot

The jewel of Australia, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef is growing weaker every day by a series of external factors that seriously threaten its future. According to a study published in the scientific journal Nature in April 2018, rising water temperatures due to climate change are slowly killing the coral in the world’s largest reef network, with its 348,000 square kilometers – or, otherwise put, the size of Italy. The corals bleach, die, and threaten all the marine life that lives within it. The heat wave of 2016 alone decimated a third of the Great Barrier Reef, according to the study.

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia closed out the month of August with a touch of optimism by officially launching their submarine drone RangerBot in Townsville. “This multifunctional oceanic drone can monitor a wide variety of problems threatening coral reefs, including bleaching, water quality, invasive species, pollution and silting,” QUT professor Matthew Dunbabin told AFP. It’s also able to map the reef at full speed. With a battery life of eight hours, the robot is designed to work in an environment as rugged as the reefs without being hampered by bad meteorological conditions, “using its robotic vision for real-time navigation, avoiding obstacles, and completing complex scientific missions,” Dunbabin explains.

Considered a last bulwark against the multiple pressures on the Great Barrier Reef, it can also intervene when the reef is threatened by a predator. Matthew Dunbabin adds that “the robot will also be able to detect Acanthasters and to administer a fatal injection” of vinegar or bile salts with 99% accuracy. It will do it, however, without endangering the rest of the ecosystem, he says. Besides the critical rise of water temperatures, the Acanthaster planci – a particularly destructive starfish known as the crown-of-thorns starfish – is a plague menacing the reef’s equilibrium. Eating almost exclusively coral, the vibrantly colored starfish can grow to a meter in diameter and is covered in venom spikes that are toxic to humans. It also reproduces wildly. All this makes the Acanthaster planci an extremely invasive species, whose reign of terror may be over thanks to RangerBot.

Uncommon solutions

Other initiatives to counteract both causes of coral disappearance are also being studied in order to save the endangered reefs. Australia fears that a 2,300-kilometer area has already suffered irreparable damage. In fact, the government sent out a call for projects in January 2018, making its movement against climate change more impassioned than ever. At the beginning of the year, it announced that it wanted to spend 60 million Australian dollars on measures to protect the coral, before raising the price of this eco-bailout to 500 million Australian dollars (about 310 million euros) on 29 April.

The authorities have received a total of 69 innovative propositions, six of which were selected to test their feasibility. Some of the ideas were discussed at the Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium held in Cairns in mid-July. “Symposium participants will present and discuss methods currently being tested around the world, as well as innovative approaches that might still be in development,” the organization said in a statement. Some innovations have attracted the attention of the international scientific community for their ingenuity.

First off, if lightening up the clouds seems a far-fetched idea, it’s actually being studied seriously as we speak. The idea is to inject tiny drops of seawater at an ultra-rapid pace. The water then vaporizes, and the salt particles float in the clouds. The reflective capacity of clouds is thus increased, and the sun’s rays will be diverted into space, reducing direct action by sunlight on the Great Barrier Reef. Led by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), this project is an out-of-the-box solution, but the idea of a kind of snow canon to brighten the clouds is slowly making headway. A prototype of the device is currently being tested to try to apply this technique on the reef.

Another innovation suggests brewing the water to lower the temperature, thus helping the reef survive. Suzanne Long, researcher at the Tropical Reef and Rainforest Research Center (RRRC), was at the Symposium to present this new idea. A slowly rotating turbine mixes the water vertically in order to raise cooler water toward the surface. “We’re planning to test it on the reef this summer, then in December,” she said. “We’re entering a new era in which none of our old ways of doing things will work anymore.

Finally, another team of researchers wants to cover coral areas with a protective film. First tests for this plan finished in April. This biodegradable solar shield – 50,000 times thinner than a human hair – is manufactured from calcium carbonate (which happens to form the base of coral skeletons). Being reflective, it would protect the reefs from the sun and the heat. “The advantage of this film is that it’s no thicker than a molecule, you can swim through it, and it will reform on its own,” AIMS scientist Andrew Negri explained to ABC. The film was not designed to shelter the entire reef from the sun’s rays, but Negri explains that it could at least prevent bleaching of certain corals in key sites. This latest innovation doesn’t yet have global implications. So far it remains a local initiative, brilliant but limited in scope.

A beneficial global impact?

Each of these innovations that target a specific threat to the Great Barrier Reef is currently being tested. RangerBot, however, is the only one that can tackle multiple enemies at once. For that reason it appears to be the most equipped to protect the reefs on a large scale – assuming that an entire fleet of these submarine drones is deployed. 

But does RangerBot, too, risk being limited to a local micro-innovation? The researchers at QUT have looked hard at the question. The advantage of the device is its price. According to the researchers, six robots could cover the entirety of the reef 14 times a year for a total cost of $720,000 (about 620,000 euros), whereas until now, six divers have only been able to cover half the reef for twice the investment. What’s more, humans struggle to concentrate on several tasks at once, which is not the case with RangerBot. Now researchers are simply waiting on additional testing and approval from the Australian government before sending their army of autonomous drones slaloming through the corals.

Finally, the fact that the Great Barrier Reef has escaped death five times in the last 30,000 years gives hope that it will continue to adapt to elements that threaten it while the human being seeks and finds an effective solution to the problems it created. But the authors of this study published in Nature at the end of May 2018 remain pessimistic. “Our discoveries give little reason to believe that the Great Barrier Reef will survive the next few decades,” they write, dampening our hopes of an all-powerful Great Barrier Reef against human stupidity.

According to AIMS CEO Paul Hardisty, to really be effective, the multiple solutions proposed by the institutes and research centers must inevitably be linked to a reduction in “greenhouse gas emissions and the utilization of fossil fuels, as well as control of climate change.” Australia is trying to do so by investing significantly in renewable energies, the New York Times reports. At least there’s that.