Australian scientists can access unexplored areas of the Great Barrier Reef with a new underwater drone

Photo: Blueye Robotics

“We have no idea what we might find,” Dr Dean Miller, Director Science and Media at the Great Barrier Reef Legacy tells me.

“As scuba-divers we can get down to around 30 to 40m safely but with this ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) we are allowed to to 150m so this really turns into exploration in its purist form.”

Dr Miller is the first to use the brand new Blueye Pioneer underwater drone, embarking on a 21-day expedition to explore the Reef’s most remote, unexplored reaches – and assess the region’s declining coral reef corridor.

“I don’t think there is anyone out there who didn’t dream as a kid of being able to see what is down in the deeper regions of our oceans,” Dr Miller enthuses.

And now, for the first time, this is now possible with an off-the-shelf ROV hat Dr Miller says will revolutionise the way that we understand what happens beneath the waves – just like we saw with the aerial drone revolution five years ago.

But it’s not just about exploring. This tool will allow us the ability to look at some of the deeper coral reefs, and see how they have survived through the last two mass bleaching events, Dr Miller says.

Smart phone connected to VR googles to give a fully immersive experience. Photo: Blueye Robotics

Erik Dyrkoren, the CEO of Blueye Robotics says this is the first underwater drone that combines modern “user friendliness” and user experience with professional performance – so it’s much easier to use for many more people.

“People can go explore the ocean, people such as the Great Barrier Reef Legacy,” Dyrkoren says. “It also has a much lower price point that professional alternatives that are out there.”

According to Dyrkoren, the Pioneer is “made to withstand the forces of the ocean, even rough waters” and has two hours of battery life.

Photo: Blueye Robotics

Dr Miller says all the data being collected from his 21-day expedition will go back to the researchers’ parent institutions to be analysed and collated. But the researchers will be providing preliminary results and updates throughout the expedition, as well as presenting these findings at a free public symposium on December 8 in Port Douglas Australia once they return.

But what will they be looking for, exactly – and how will the expedition work?

“We have a good broadscale understanding of how the Great Barrier Reef was affected by the two consecutive bleaching events, ” Dr Miller says. “What we don’t understand in great detail is how individual coral species and individual reefs have fared through this heat stress.”

Great Barrier Reef Legacy is providing free access for scientists and research teams over the 21-day expedition, dubbed “Search for the Super Coral”. Basically this means researchers from many different organisations can come together and work on the same reef, on the same day, to answer the big questions – which corals have survived, where have they survived and how have they survived.

“Once we understand this we will have a better idea of what this means for the future health of the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs worldwide,” Dr Miller says.

Split photo of Blueye Pioneer exploring the kelp on one of the islands outside Stamsund in Lofoten. Photo: Blueye Robotics

With any expedition into a remote region where there has been very little access there is always the chance of finding something unexpected, but what the team is really hoping to find are the coral survivors – the species are more heat tolerant than others and seem to be able to cope with warmer water temperatures.

“We know that some of corals will not be as highly adapted to this type of stress and so our team will be working hard to identify both the corals that are making it through, and the ones that aren’t doing so well,” Dr Miller explains.

Dr Miller points out that The Great Barrier Reef is “very large”, and has a high degree of resilience.

Having enough live coral and ecosystem function will be essential for determining how well coral reefs adapt to a warming climate, Dr Miller says – and it’s this resilience they are hoping to discover.

Blueye exploring soft corals on shipwreck. Photo: Blueye Robotics

There are quite a few ideas being thrown around right now as to how we might restore the coral reefs of the world. But Dr Miller says this our expedition is really the first step at understanding how natural systems have coped with higher water temperatures.

“We will identify and fully understand the coral species that are able to make it through these events, and therefore we will have a much better idea where to invest our energy and resources for restoration efforts,” Dr Miller says.

“Until these questions answered we really can’t begin any restoration processes as using the wrong coral species would be devastating.”

The expedition is supporting research from several government organisations, and they are providing much-needed resources, expertise and the best marine scientists in their field to make sure it is a success.

This really is a unique collaboration between scientists, the tourism industry, educators, media professionals and the global community and Dr Miller says it “really paves the way for how scientific programs of the high significance can be creatively funded to solve the most pressing environmental issues.”

But to save the reef, Dr Miller says first and foremost we should all be moving towards renewable energy sources as fast as we can and reducing the amount of carbon emissions that are affecting not only coral reef ecosystems globally, but many other essential ecosystems on earth.

“Climate change is quickly affecting us all and making real and positive changes right now will determine the fate of coral reefs in the next 10 years,” Dr Miller says. “We must act now.”

You can follow along with the expedition at the website and on Facebook.

“We encourage scientists from around the globe to access this information for their own studies,” Dr Miller says. “This is because the Great Barrier Reef belongs to all of us and we all have a vested interest in ensuring that this largest natural living structure is allowed to thrive.”

“We that for coral reefs to survive we need to support innovation, education, and communication – which is exactly what we intend to do.”

If you’ve got a spare $6k to spend, you can pre-order your own Pioneer here.

This article first appeared on Gizmodo Australia. See the original here.

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