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By Jo Myers 5 September 2016 3 min read

The Starbug is an AUV - miniature autonomous underwater vehicle, ideal for data collection and ecosystem surveys. Image: BHP Billiton

An autonomous underwater submarine has stolen the show, and the minds, of students at Exmouth Senior High School.

Students from Year 10 were able to take the reins of CSIRO’s very own Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) – the Starbug – whilst it had a break from mapping the depths of the northern Ningaloo World Heritage Area.

What makes Starbug special? Well, it’s small enough to be launched by one person without the need for specialised equipment, such as cranes, and it operates with minimal to no human intervention.

This unique opportunity to take the Starbug for a drive was part of the CSIRO-BHP Billiton Ningaloo Outlook community engagement activity at the school that coincided with National Science Week. Delivered by the CSIRO research team, students took the chance to see first-hand the technology used in marine science research and to talk to real-life-scientists studying their local marine environment.

The Starbug explored the depths of the local Exmouth Paltridge Memorial Swimming Pool while students also had the chance to undertake practical lab experiments to see how marine science is applied in the real world.

At the pool, students heard about how the dramatic improvement of underwater camera and acoustic systems in recent times has changed the way we investigate and visualise habitats that were once inaccessible. Students learned about the capabilities of AUV in helping to produce 3D maps of marine habitats and also built their own backyard version of a towed video camera system.

Yellow submarine on the surface of a school pool
Starbug investigates the pool. Image: Jo Myers, CSIRO

The makeshift system used a Go-pro camera and was pulled across the pool to take images of a cleverly designed ‘pretend’ reef structure consisting of ropes and lines and foam fish. The students processed the images on a laptop using a field identification key, and learned how images distorted underwater need to be corrected.

Nick Mortimer the CSIRO Engineer on the Ningaloo Outlook project working on the deep reefs research was there to guide the students through the activity.

“They took to the activity like ducks to water and asked some really interesting questions about the work we are doing at Exmouth. We’re looking forward to doing more exciting activities with the school in the coming years,” said Mr Mortimer.

Four men posing with yellow mini-submarine
CSIRO’s Deep Reefs Ningaloo Outlook team with the ‘Starbug’ team. Image: Jo Myers, CSIRO

Back at the lab, the student group caught up with CSIRO researchers Damian Thomson and Cindy Bessey who delivered a workshop on ocean acidification and how this phenomena is impacting the health of coral reefs around the world. To provide practical understanding, students worked in groups to undertake an experiment involving different corals and different pH solutions to see how a change in pH affects the corals’ calcium carbonate skeleton. In one solution, one coral piece lost 50 per cent of its mass.

Two school girls in a school lab examining an object
Year 10 students taking a look at a coral piece after it has been exposed to seawater with altered pH. Image: Jo Myers, CSIRO

Damian Thomson said increases in ocean acidity decrease the capacity of corals and other calicifiers to build skeletons, which in turn decreases their capacity to create habitat for the Reef's marine life.

“This activity really helped the students to explore ocean acidification what it means and to also understand how water pH is measured. It was great to see so many keen students and meet some likely scientists of the future,” Mr Thomson said.

Community engagement is a key component of the Ningaloo Outlook project, and the team will be back at Exmouth Senior High School in 2017 for the next set of activities.

Ningaloo Outlook is an Industry-Science Marine Research Partnership between CSIRO and BHP Billiton investing $5.4 million (AU) over five years to increase the ecological understanding of the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area’s deep and shallow reefs and the reef’s shark and turtle populations.

Read more about CSIRO research on Ningaloo Reef.

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