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Autonomous boats the future of Great Barrier Reef research as diving expeditions wind back

Robots could soon be monitoring the Great Barrier Reef in a bold shake-up of underwater research.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has revealed plans to wind back diving expeditions within the next decade, with autonomous boats to patrol the reef instead.

But the technology won’t completely replace humans.

“Basically, you’re a marine biologist on steroids with autonomy,” project leader Melanie Olsen said.

“Tropical Australia is huge, there’s 6,000 kilometres of coastline and 3,000 reefs to monitor, and at the moment our operations are dominated by diving.

“But we’ve got threats in the water such as crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish — all things that don’t go well with divers.”

AIMS has tested the capabilities of 11 different autonomous boats this week.

The models currently used in Australia vary in size from one to nine metres.

Some can accommodate a crew, but many are too small, and are remote controlled.

Human oversight needed
The plan is to establish a fleet based in Townsville that would allow researchers to collect data without being in the water themselves.

“While you’re doing quite niche research on a particular area [of the reef], you’ll have the autonomous systems doing the boring perimeter surveys, where it could be dangerous for divers,” Ms Olsen said.

Research centre Trusted Autonomous Systems, which is working with AIMS, said the technology still required human oversight.

“You can have someone on the edge of the water with a remote controller,” director of autonomy Rachel Horne said.

“Or you could have someone sitting in a shore-based control centre behind a laptop, or in their office in another state.”

As AIMS develops a plan for its robot boats over the next few years, researchers hope reforms to maritime regulations will better accommodate autonomous vessels.

Trusted Autonomous Systems is in the process of developing technical standards for the government to consider.

“The Australian maritime regulatory framework is very human centric,” Ms Horne said.

“It’s based on vessels that have people on board.

“What we’re seeing is that autonomous vessels always need an exemption.

“That can be slow and make innovation harder.”