Watch This Video of Robots Helping Coral Reefs Have Sex
Meet the Great Barrier Reef’s new wingman: LarvalBot. Developed by Matthew Dunbabin from the Institute for Future Environments, the robot will function like the underwater version of the mythical baby-carrying stork by safely guiding coral babies to areas of the reef that need the most help.
Resembling a hammerhead shark, the semi-autonomous robot skims over the top of reefs collecting coral spawn to then spray them elsewhere. A majority of stony corals are broadcast spawners, which means they release their egg and sperm cells into the water and hope they match up and travel far enough to begin another reef.
This is where LarvalBot comes in. It helps with the dissemination in part by depositing the spawn in parts of the reefs that have experienced the most damage. Think of it like an undersea bee, pollinating the areas that need the most help. Professor Peter Harrison from Southern Cross University also assisted in the research for this project, building on his previous coral reproduction work
“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,” explains Harrison in a statement.
Areas like the Great Barrier are in dire need of this type of assistance. Thanks to a single heatwave in April, the formation lost 29 percent of its coral. LarvalBot will hopefully lead to more full-grown coral by leaving less of the reproductive process up to chance.
Harrison and his colleagues are currently in the process of developing a team of LarvalBot in time for the fall’s spawning event.
“We aim to have two or three robots ready for the November spawn. One will carry about 200,000 larvae and the other about 1.2 million,” explains Harrison. “During operation, the robots will follow preselected paths at constant altitude across the reef and a person monitoring will trigger the release of the larvae to maximize the efficiency of the dispersal.”
Professor Dunbabin estimates that each robot would cover 1,500 square-meters of reef per hour. Now that’s a good wingman.