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Coral Research Cruises Continue in Remote Australian Waters

Critical Coral Research Cruises Continue in Remote Australian Waters

Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor has just completed a two week coordinated robotics expedition in the remote Timor Sea. Falkor is now returning to the same location for a new month-long cruise investigating ecological processes that shape coral reef communities.

It was a quick swap for Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor, who just completed her third expedition in Australian waters this year. This past cruise was a first of its kind study, using coordinated groups of seven different underwater robotic vehicles.

The team, led by Dr. Oscar Pizarro from the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, had a successful cruise. The remote Scott Reef site was used for experiments aimed at expanding the electronic view of the seafloor and overlying waters. In total, over 40 dives with various Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) were completed collecting more than 400,000 seafloor images as well as oceanographic information and multibeam bathymetry data from around the lagoon. Some of this imagery was collected over sites visited in 2009 and 2011, forming part of a time series as part of Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). This imagery will provide insights into change in these sensitive coral habitats. “Having multiple robots that can operate simultaneously is a great outcome. This allowed us to explore different aspects of the reef simultaneously from a single ship, something we haven’t done before”, said Dr. Stefan Williams.

The science party also developed a flexible visualization tool for tracking the multiple vehicles relative to each other and to the ship in real time. This allowed anyone to see what was happening on the ship using a computer, TV, or even a smart phone. Capitalizing on public interest in the robots, post-doctoral research engineer Ariell Friedman was able to create a citizen science website, Squidle, using images collected from the AUVs. The site allows participants to label images that will be used to train classification algorithms to help analyze the collected imagery. The team hopes that this can be a fun educational tool that gives students a chance to engage in real science while providing valuable data to the science party.

“We believe this cruise was a big step in pushing oceanographic technology forward,” said chief engineer, Dr. Pizarro. The work will bring engineers closer to being able to leave groups of robotic vehicles unattended for long periods of time to accomplish tasks like seafloor mapping.

Investigation of this reef area does not stop with the Coordinated Robotics cruise. Profs. Greg Ivey and Ryan Lowe from University of Western Australia along with co-investigator Dr. Andrew Heyward from Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) are heading right back out to Scott Reef along with other collaborators on April 10th, for a month-long expedition to understand the dynamics of ocean transport and mixing processes across a focused region of the Australian North West Shelf.

The science team will explore the connections between ocean circulation, habitat patterns and benthic biodiversity of previously visited Scott Reef, but will also be looking at the connections between physical and biological processes at two deep reef ecosystems in the region. The team expects to be making observations during a possible coral reef spawning event as well. “We are excited to embark on this multi-disciplinary cruise to support both physical and biological research to improve understanding of this biological hotspot. Results will help underpin management of this region through improved understanding of the key biophysical processes”, said Chief Scientist Prof Greg Ivey. Another unique aspect of this cruise will be the coordinated efforts with AIMS research vessel Solander that will be operating in the region simultaneously.


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