With nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the need to understand the oceans and seas is vital. Many underwater organisms and ecosystems have yet to be fully understood or explored, and chief among them are coastal reef systems. But conventional forms of reef monitoring like diving, which is costly and puts researchers at increased risk for decompression or other diving-related illnesses, have limited the ability for conservationists and researchers to fully grasp the world beneath the seas.
Enter the reefRover, an efficient and low maintenance underwater mapping solution developed by NYU Abu Dhabi engineering students to revolutionize the way underwater reef research and conservation efforts are conducted.
Designed to cover more space in less time and with less overhead, the reefRover is a submersible drone that autonomously scans marine environments and enables researchers and citizen scientists to collaboratively gather well-structured image data about coral reefs at unprecedented rates. During a scanning mission, the rover is quickly and easily deployed from a dive boat, and once in the water, navigates a grid pattern within a geo-fenced perimeter at a fixed distance above the seabed, capturing high-resolution images of consistent scales.
The images are then merged to create comprehensive local maps of coral reefs. A single reefRover can cover up to 1,400 square meters per outing, compared to only 100 square meters using manual methods. And by empowering a new breed of non-experts explorers to generate vast collections of research-grade data, reefRover has the potential to transform coral conservation efforts in the Arabian Gulf and around the world.
Chief engineer Daniel Carelli, an NYUAD sophomore who is majoring in Electrical Engineering, said: “Our aim for the reefRover was to develop the first widely available, fully autonomous underwater vehicle. Ultimately, we hope to bridge the gap between community level monitoring and scientific research, helping to make a real contribution to the future of marine biology and understanding our oceans.”
Carelli added: “We benefited tremendously from NYUAD biology professor John Burt’s guidance as well as the mentorship and resources of NYUAD’s Engineering Design Studio. By basing our development in the studio, we had great opportunities to merge concepts from a mix of disciplines into our solutions and share our work with the NYUAD community. With the lab open 24/7 to all students, much of our work ended up being done with the help of non-engineers and at all hours of night.”
Jovan Jovancevic, an image processing engineer and member of the Class of 2018, said: “It’s definitely the opportunity to have an impact on something real. This was not a homework or a school assignment; we were looking to build something that would bring technology to people who actually need it. And in doing so, our goal was to make a positive impact to the field of marine biology and marine monitoring.”
In addition to Carelli and Jovancevic, the reefRover development team includes Hazem Ibrahim (Class of 2018), Ali Tarek Abouelatta (Class of 2018), and Shien Yang Lee (Class of 2016). The students worked in collaboration with Engineering and Biology faculty to develop reefRover, and on Saturday they presented their invention to the Second Annual Drones for Good Competition, placing second. The UAE Drones for Good Award invited the most innovative and creative minds from around the world to find solutions to improve people’s lives and provide positive technological solutions to modern day issues.
NYUAD Lecturer of Engineering Design Matthew Karau, who mentored the students on design and development, said: “It’s always inspiring to see a group of enthusiastic and determined students take on a big challenge and craft an elegant solution over a number of months and outside of class time. The reefRover team looked at a real challenge in the world today and identified the innovations necessary to transform the way we collect data about coral reefs. These are the types of young engineers we can all look forward to seeing usher in cutting edge and mindful technological solutions.”
Associate Professor of Biology John Burt, who also advised the reefRover team, said: “Current coral reef research is often constrained by the 'bottom time' of breathing air available in SCUBA tanks, as well as safety issues related to repeat diving. The automated reefRover is able to cover much larger areas for longer periods of time, removing all diving-related constraints and providing substantially more detailed datasets than could be collected on SCUBA.”
Burt added: “Given that the reefRover can be pre-programmed with grids that it will automatically map, this also removes the need to have technical specialists on the boat. Thus the reefRover can be deployed by dive tour operators and other citizen scientists, allowing collection of data from a far greater number of locations than could easily be done by a single marine biology lab or government agency.”
For more information about the UAE Drones for Good Award please visit www.dronesforgood.ae. For more information about reefRover, visit the team’s website at www.reef-rover.net.