Helping crucial one-night event to regenerate coral reefs

First published 21 March 2022

Coral reefs provide a critical ecosystem for life underwater, protect coastal areas, and generate billions of dollars for the countries and communities which border them. In addition, around 500 million people earn their livelihoods from fishing, tourism and other industries that exist solely due to coral reefs. 

We have already lost 50 per cent of the world's reefs. Climate change, pollution and overfishing continue their almost inexorable destruction.  

The largest reef system of all, the world heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, is also dying. In 2020, the reef suffered its third major coral bleaching event in only five years. And now, almost half of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has been lost to climate change.  

Robotics Professor Matthew Dunbabin shares there is still hope for reefs across the globe, thanks to an innovative technology developed by QUT researchers to scale restoration using an approach known as ‘coral IVF’.

Once a year, normally for one night only, the coral spawns, releasing billions of coral eggs and sperm, fertilising them to form tiny larvae as they float around the ocean. Within a few days, the larvae are ready to grow and settle onto available reef substrate, but only a tiny fraction of the larvae find a home and grow into mature coral colonies. Professor Matthew Dunbabin explains how ground-breaking QUT research can support new coral colony growth.  

“We’ve developed a way to use robotics and artificial intelligence in purpose-designed vessels to give nature a massive helping hand. 

“The technique exploits an approach called Mass Larval Enhancement – where we use multipurpose autonomous vehicles called LarvalBots to help gather coral spawn on that one night of the year. 

“The collected coral spawn is placed into custom floating rearing ponds, and one week later, we consolidate the larvae. Then the LarvalBots are repurposed to intelligently and autonomously target and seed depleted reefs with larvae, so they’re able to regenerate.” 

Thanks to funding, researchers have scaled from a payload of nine litres with LarvalBot, which seeds around 18 square metres a minute, to a payload of 120 litres with each new-gen LarvalBoat, covering over 60 square metres a minute.   

 “From there, we have the potential to expand the technology to an industrial scale rapidly – reef guardians will be able to operate not just a handful of vehicles, but tens to hundreds,” said Professor Dunbabin. 

“This moves the field of play from a few square feet at a time, to many acres every day, and with this kind of ground-breaking technology, reefs worldwide will have a fighting chance.” 

Thank you to our 230 donors who have helped further Professor Matthew Dunbabin’s work in restoring the Great Barrier Reef. If you would like to partner with QUT researchers in saving underwater ecosystems through reef regeneration, please consider donating today