Underwater Drone Technology Taking Reef Research To New Depths

After years of disastrous bleaching, unseen areas of the Great Barrier Reef are finally getting a check-up -- and drone technology is getting us down there.

What you need to know
  • The Great Barrier Reef Legacy expedition is using a new drone to explore the reef at depths previously inaccessible by divers
  • 'Super coral' may help protect the reef from further damage
  • Drone technology has come a long way since its inception

Only five percent of the Earth's oceans have been explored.

To put that into context, some 500 individuals have travelled to space to set sights on the cosmos with their own eyes, while only three have visited the Mariana Trench -- the deepest known part of the ocean right here on our very own planet.

But now, for the first time, drone technology is revolutionising how we see and understand what's happening beneath the waves, and scientists set on saving the Great Barrier Reef are among the first to put the tech to use.

Dr Dean Miller, director of science and media with the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, is the first scientist to use the Blueye Pioneer underwater drone which is capable of accessing ocean depths previously unreachable by human divers.

“The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is an area that is remote, large and hard to access,” said Miller ahead of the drone's first launch.

“Researchers have been unable to fully assess what is happening to the most pristine part of the northern Great Barrier Reef, so we are looking forward to using the Blueye’s Pioneer drone to help us better understand the changing nature of this fragile ecosystem."

Developed by Blueye Robotics in Norway, the Pioneer drone dives eight times deeper than the average scuba enthusiast, reaching a depth of up to 150 metres.

The Legacy team used the new drone to search for "super corals" that survived the past two years of devastating coral bleaching events, in the hope that such species may help protect the reef from further damage.

In a promising sign for the reef, the team located sites of high coral quality, indicating the system still has great resilience and an ability to bounce back should bleaching events continue.

Drones Have Come A Long Way

American futurist Thomas Frey predicts by 2030 there will be one billion drones in the world performing tasks people have not yet even imagined.

Although first developed for use on the battlefield, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have now taken over commercial photography markets, and are starting to saturate industrial ones -- providing innovative and creative solutions to problems once deemed difficult or unsolvable.

In an impressive feat, drone technology first dipped its toes in Australian waters in January when two teenagers were rescued on NSW's far north coast by a UAV fitted with a flotation device.

In this world first, two people struggling in heavy surf were saved from drowning while lifesavers' feet remained dry on the sand.

When Amazon announced its trial of Amazon Air Prime -- a service designed to deliver packages to customers in under 30 minutes -- the wider population was introduced to the  now widely recognised ability of UAVs to make deliveries in record time.

But the Silicon Valley-based firm Zipline pushed this ability to arguably greater heights, using drones to deliver blood in remote African regions.

Where getting hold of blood for transfusions once took multiple hours and involved driving to a regional centre, drones are now delivering the resource to 21 transfusing facilities in less than 30 minutes.

But drones aren't being used just to save people -- they're entertaining us as well.

In April, Chinese manufacturer EHang broke the Guinness World Record for the most UAVs airborne simultaneously when it sent 1,374 dancing drones up in the ancient city of Xi'an to perform a 13-minute light show.

From environmental conservation to emergency medical supplies, it appears drones are here to stay.