Preserving Australia’s Great Natural Wonder

Spanning 2,300km in length and comprising over 3,000 individual reefs, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef occupies an area the size of Italy and is one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.

Climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef’s future but given its immense size, the impacts of disturbance events like coral bleaching and extreme weather are not even, resulting in a patchwork of healthy, degraded and recovering reef sites.

With only 5 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef regularly monitored, scientists and managers need up-to-date insights on reef state to better target their resources. To help guide decision-making, Dell Technologies and Intel are working with Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and the University of Queensland (UQ) to enable real-time data collection as part of their Great Reef Census project.

The Great Reef Census has been developed to pilot new ways of capturing large-scale reconnaissance data from across the Great Barrier Reef. To achieve this, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef wanted to harness an abundant resource – the vessels and people already out on the Reef every day.

One of the challenges facing CEO Andy Ridley and his team was making data collection real time. Citizen scientists and people who work on the Reef are eager to assist the project by capturing survey photos but can lose momentum and fail to upload the images once they depart the boat.

Tourism crews undertaking surveys are also busy hosting guests, so need to quickly and easily upload the images as part of their on-board routine. Researchers on longer expeditions to remote reefs need to upload images from survey sites as they go, rather than waiting to return to shore. The solution rolled out on vessels such as tourism boats, dive liveaboards, fishing charters and superyachts needed to be simple, efficient, safe and reliable – and able to withstand harsh reef conditions.

Engineers from Dell Technologies and Intel wanted to solve this challenge. “We had to get creative to develop a viable technology solution to help participants simply upload photos and then efficiently and securely relay them onshore for processing and analysis. There were lots of factors to think about. Part of the team is floating in the open ocean over many hours from the mainland, making connectivity, bandwidth and security even more challenging. A standard laptop or server would never cope in the extreme heat or with divers covered in saltwater,” says Ryan Tassotti, Principal Systems Engineer at Dell Technologies ANZ who lead the group.

The IT solution that both met the needs of the project and could withstand the challenging environment includes a secure edge-to-core networking solution. Comprising multiple edge devices that are powered by Intel Atom processors, these ruggedised devices can withstand heat and water, and provide power for data analytics with a low energy footprint.

Bringing the edge to the reef

IT architects and developers from Dell Technologies worked alongside Citizen of the Great Barrier Reef’s technology lead Som Meaden to build an infrastructure solution that supports a purpose-built portal for citizen scientists on the vessels to submit survey photos from each reef and follow the journey of this data. These photos, taken at intervals along the reef, are uploaded via user devices that securely connect to Wi-Fi that is provided by the edge device. When back near mainland, the edge device automatically connects to the local 4G network and the images are uploaded to the Great Reef Census website, where they will later be analysed by the University of Queensland’s marine research team, as well as citizen scientists from around the world who can participate in the project digitally.

The team at UQ will use the data to monitor dangers faced by corals and identify ways to better manage reef sites. Professor Peter Mumby explains, “With access to limited data, our existing models for tracking reef health aren’t as effective as we need them to be. The Great Reef Census data will provide an invaluable injection of data to give us a much clear understanding of what’s happening and enable us to drive more targeted projection and regeneration activities.”

Once the team identifies a healthy reef, they can focus efforts on ensuring it is protected and then during coral spawning, it will hopefully release gametes (a combined sperm and egg) to repopulate nearby damaged reefs.

Using innovation to tackle big issues

With real time data collection now being trialled successfully on a range of boats, Andy and his team at Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef hope to expand the project to reach even more reefs in 2021, widening the net of data capture. Dell Technologies’ SVP and Managing Director, Angela Fox says, “This project is one that is close to our team members’ hearts. As a company, we’re continually looking for ways in which technology can enable and power human progress. We’re very proud of the role our team will play in this project to protect one of our national, as well as global, natural wonders.”

Assigning vessels to certain priority reefs will create an influx of invaluable photos that will enable the team to map the state of many reefs and use that information to identify those reefs that are most important in driving recovery from recent bleaching events. “Being able to run IoT solutions in remote locations will change the way we view the world. We’re proud to have been a part of enabling citizen scientists around the world to help protect Australia’s Great Barrier Reef,” says Ryan McCurdy, Vice President, Global Accounts, Intel.

The Great Reef Census is a Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef project, delivered in partnership with the University of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science with support from James Cook University. The project is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Prior Family Foundation and the Reef & Rainforest Research Centre.

To follow the progress of the Great Reef Census, head to and follow @citizensgbr. From 1 February 2021, you can participate online by helping to analyse the images captured from the Great Barrier Reef.

About the Author: Dell Technologies