aerial photo of a grey and black autonomous vessel on the surface of the water above a coral reef

Autonomous surface vessels (ASVs)

Developing safe and effective ASVs for marine monitoring

AIMS is testing autonomous surface vessels (ASVs) – or self-driving boats – as a safe and cost-effective method of marine monitoring.  

Smaller than crewed vessels, ASVs can operate in hazardous locations, and at night, and can cover much larger areas than crewed vessels. In some cases, they can operate independently of large ships.  

ASVs can navigate a reef while towing various sensors, undertake shallow water bathymetric (depth) surveys, and collect water samples. 

Deploying a fleet of ASVs to collect the latest information on water temperature and quality, coral cover and threats such as coral bleaching and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks will allow us to scale up our monitoring work. 

It would also help realise the AIMS vision of creating a layered marine monitoring system that integrates observations made underwater, from the sea surface, from the air and from space.  

AIMS has tested several different types of ASVs, both long-range and short-range.


In 2020, AIMS assessed the capability of Marine Advanced Robotics’ WAM-V, a short-range tender-sized ASV, during a four-day field trip at John Brewer Reef, 40 nautical miles from Townsville.  

Owned by Queensland University of Technology (QUT), the WAM-V had integrated sophisticated sensors, winches, software and algorithms to enable it to autonomously complete tasks. 

AIMS experimented with different sensors including sonar, LiDAR (a detection system which works on the principle of radar but uses light from a laser) and imaging devices.  

We found the WAM-V to be a viable base for conducting sonar bathymetry surveys and benthic (flora and fauna of the sea floor) imaging, particularly in shallow reef-flat areas. Results indicated it could be used for automated imaging and reef mapping during routine surveys.  

WAM-V towed Reefscan during the trial.

Wave Glider 

Long-range ASVs have the potential to conduct reef surveys without large surface ship dependencies and could provide efficiency gains for routine at-sea observations. 

In 2017, we trialled the Wave Glider, a long-range ASV powered by waves and the sun, developed by Boeing subsidiary Liquid Robotics. 

The first seven-day trial saw the low-speed vehicle cover 200 nautical miles navigating around the reefs of the central Great Barrier Reef. A second trial was held off the coast of north-west Australia. 

While the trials were successful, AIMS’ focus shifted to short-range ASVs as they offered potential to efficiently scale our routine monitoring work without radically changing our methodologies and processes. We concluded that integrating long range ASVs into operations was too big a jump to cost-effectively integrate before we had begun using short range ASVs.

ASV trial findings 

While dependent on a manned mothership for deployment, a small fleet of ASVs could empower AIMS to cost-effectively collect data over larger and more inaccessible areas in a relatively short time.  

ASVs can be fitted with multiple instruments, enabling collection of reef images for coral health and classification assessments as well as seawater measurements such as temperature and water quality.