Queensland’s Big Challenges: The Great Barrier Reef, Water and Energy

Queensland’s greatest assets also pose the greatest challenges as the demands of a growing population calls for new ways to provide for a changing world — and keep the things most precious to the State healthy and vibrant for generations to come.

The saying goes that prevention is always better than a cure.

It’s a sentiment the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is taking one step further — engaging in intervention before either prevention or a cure is necessary.

“We are entering an era where we are transitioning from classic conservation and protection of our marine ecosystems, to a more active intervention approach,” the Foundation’s Project Director for Restoration, Science and Innovation Dr Petra Lundgren said.

“This will continue to evolve and become the new ‘normal’ over the coming decade, as we battle with the increasing impacts of climate change and other disturbances of the Reef. The risk of doing nothing is too great, and the urgency to take active and informed action to improve the resilience of the coral reefs, is growing.

“In the coming 10 years, we will see an increase of large-scale restoration efforts and new ways to support the resilience of the Reef, whether it is from improved methods to reduce run-off, or from enhancing the adaptive capacity of corals through actions such as selective breeding or assisted migration.

“We will see a huge leap forward in how we make decisions regarding the ‘what, when and where’ of management actions.

This will be driven by a vastly improved predictive ecosystem, climatological and bio-geo-chemical models; and underpinned by a large amount of data, better computational capacity and improved monitoring methods, including advancements such as the RangerBot.”

RangerBot trials. Courtesy Richard Fitzpatrick of Biopixel for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

The RangerBot is built based on the prototype COTSBot, an original underwater robot designed by scientists based at Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

The RangerBot is a low-cost robot designed specifically to operate in the coral reef environment that primarily uses cameras for navigation. Compared to a human diver, the RangerBot can stay underwater three times longer, has more capacity to gather scientific data and can operate in conditions not necessarily safe for a human diver. The innovative robotic build is also capable of autonomous operation without the need to be tethered to the surface and has an advanced computer vision system running onboard.

In 2018, the QUT robotics team, Professor Matt Dunbabin and Dr Feras Dayoub joined forces with Southern Cross University in a bid to further expand the capabilities of the RangerBot to also include directed deployment of coral larvae on coral restoration sites.

Larval Restoration Project 2018. Courtesy Biopixel and Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.

The concept won the Tiffany & Co ‘Out of the Blue Box’ Innovation Challenge. With a list of successes gained from the efforts of the RangerBot teams, including designing and building a vision-enabled Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) that reduced the build cost from $74,000 to less than $15,000per unit, it’s a worthy recipient.

Dr Petra Lundgren said the extra ‘hands and eyes’ the RangerBot offers coral reef managers, researchers and community groups, allows better monitoring and management of various threats on the Great Barrier Reef.

“Reef monitoring is being increasingly automated, especially on massive and remote reef areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef,” Dr Lundgren said.

“Developing smart and cost efficient AUVs that have the capacity to get in close without impacting the reef is key to this process; the ability to do a range of activities in addition to monitoring makes the RangerBot even more valuable.

“The other end of this pipeline is the actual data handling, analysis and management, which is also being increasingly automated using AI technology.

“The capacity and accessibility of robots and computers is expanding exponentially, while costs are going down. At the same time, we are entering an era where the need to take dramatic action to protect the environment is more urgent than ever before.

“Using technology to enhance our capacity to act, share data, increase scope and scale of our actions is crucial.

“The past decade has seen a huge increase in the use of technology in areas such as conservation and natural resource management — where the use of drones, AI and computer learning, large scale models and automated analysis of remote sensing data — are becoming part of the everyday toolkit of management agencies and conservation practitioners.”

For those who manage and supply everyday utilities to rate-payers throughout Queensland, the changing requirements and abilities of the ‘toolkit’ in response to environmental factors is a shared commonality.

“Population growth and longer life expectancy continually places increased reliance on our essential services,” CEO of Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU) Louise Dudley said.

“Today urbanisation demands more sustainable living, resulting in changes to the way we have previously delivered infrastructures and managed water resources.

“Significant advances in global connectivity, education, health and technology empower individuals like never before, increasing demands for transparency and participation in utility decision-making.

“Over the past 30 years, but particularly the last decade, information and communications technology has transformed society and a new wave of technological advances is now creating new opportunities and risks.

“To adapt to these new trends QUU continually scans our changing environment. We acknowledge the only thing constant is change.

“As QUU is only eight years young, we have learnt the best way to be positioned to meet change is by continually shaping our environment and embracing innovation.”

Queensland Urban Utilities is applying innovation and working on ways to optimise its water and wastewater treatment processes in the south-east of the state, as well as exploring resource recovery, energy neutrality, reduced materials handling and smarter systems and processes.

“In late 2013, QUU launched its Innovation Program which is underpinned by the premise that innovation can happen anywhere, and cultivated by anyone,” Louise Dudley said.

“The Program provides a supportive environment for our people to generate ideas, follow them through and inspire others to be creative and inventive. It’s about doing things better, working smarter and making our lives — and jobs — easier.

“We have developed a roadmap of research opportunities which enables QUU to increase its capability and capacity to meet these complex changes.

“One example is partnering with leading universities, to identify the threats of climate change now and long into the future and the implications for water and wastewater utilities. This research will identify interdependencies to assist in developing the best adaption and resilience strategies and ensure best management practices.”

Another example is QUU’s Innovation Centre at Luggage Point which houses over $10 million of waste water treatment and sewerage research — some of which are world first Australian technologies and practices.

This research is already helping transform waste to energy by increasing the company’s biogas production via enhanced co-digestion of high strength waste.

“We are also turning waste to resource with our world first UGold technology research, separating urine at source to generate agricultural by-products and reduce loads in the systems,” Louise Dudley said.

“Like other organisations, QUU faces a common challenge of needing to improve performance, respond to and benefit from rapid change, and remain relevant within our own industry — all while delivering an essential service that is sustainable, affordable, reliable and resilient for the generations of tomorrow.”

For those working in the renewable energy space — tomorrow is already here.

David Finn, CEO and founder of Brisbane-based power electronics engineering company Tritium, has been driving an electric vehicle (EV) for years.

“There are plenty of innovators out there who have gone on the behaviour change journey and been driving EV’s for a while now — but now we’re functioning in a space where there’s no need to ask people to change their behaviour anymore,” he explained.

“Charging up your EV over a 15-minute coffee is cheaper and easier than the petrol station experience. With the right supporting infrastructure, the battery pack on wheels is incredibly convenient.”

Tritium founders David Finn (left), Paul Sernia (centre) and James Kennedy (right). Courtesy Tritium.

Tritium launched in 2001 with the company’s three founders meeting while working in the inverter tech space for solar racing teams. Ten years later, they moved in to vehicle charging and in 2017 launched in America, then Europe.

“Our Amsterdam office supports existing customers and is also allowing us to grow in one of the most advanced EV markets in the world,” David Finn said.

“We’re finding that the Return on Investment overseas is coming from cities where most of the kilometres are done, and that’s something that Queensland could do so well.

“The opportunity to put in some world-leading infrastructure to enable the EV sector is right in front of us.

“We’re an affluent society that can afford EV cars, but there needs to more models and opportunities to buy them here in Australia.

“We’re also a market that’s suited to leading adoption in this space, but we need to work with government and the private sector to work out how to incentivise it better.

“In another 10 years I think it’s reasonable to foresee that 40 per cent of all new vehicle sales will be EV cars. The cost of batteries is plummeting and there are some serious offerings from standard vehicle manufacturers through to the luxury car market — it’s a realistic sales target as long as awareness and infrastructure grows at the same rate and we harness an innovative mindset.”

Queensland’s Big Challenges: The Great Barrier Reef, Water and Energy was originally published in Advance Queensland on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Last updated 17 Sep, 2019
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