From Autonomous Cars to Aqualink: Developing a Reef Monitoring System

Creating bold conservation tech solutions requires each of us to find the intersection between our skills and passions. In this case study on the new Aqualink reef monitoring system, a unique citizen science project being deployed to collect data from coral reefs around the globe, we explore how Aqualink developed, and get to know Aqualink's co-founder Drew Gray, who recently shifted his career focus to marine conservation full-time after working with companies like Tesla and Uber to develop self-driving cars for the past decade.

Learn more about how you can get involved with Aqualink here!

Date published: 2020/06/09

As conservation technology continues to advance, broadening the scope of possibilities for those who seek tech solutions and those who set out to create them, more engineers and tech experts than ever are realizing the invaluable role they're able to play in this growing field. While many conservation tech solutions result from adapting existing gear and systems, and many engineers offer their expertise by finding new applications for projects they've done for vastly different fields, some tech experts are choosing to put the full strength of their knowledge behind conservation science, building careers specifically in the conservation field and opening new doors for others to follow their paths.

One such person is Drew Gray from Aqualink, a brand-new, global citizen science-based sensor project intended to monitor the impacts of climate change on coral reefs. The WILDLABS mission has always been to bridge the worlds of conservation and technology, bringing those fields together to reveal the full possibilities of collaboration between the two. Drew's career path perfectly captures that spirit, and may inspire others from the tech field to explore the ways in which their own careers can lead to unique innovations and positive change.

Inspired by his lifelong interest in the ocean and marine robotics, Drew recently took the plunge into a new career with Aqualink after working for the past decade to develop self-driving cars with companies including Tesla, Uber, and Voyage. Drew's story underscores the importance of recognizing how our individual talents and skillsets can best support conservation, and reflects how big, bold, and innovative ideas can result from finding an intersection between our passions and areas of expertise. 

Read on to get to know Drew, learn more about the Aqualink sensor system and their future goals for expanding the program to include other technologies, and find out how you can get involved with Aqualink locally.

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About Aqualink

Our goal at Aqualink is to build a better ocean dataset to enable scientists to protect and restore the world’s coral reefs. We are doing this by deploying a global ocean monitoring system that streams data live and provides a platform for local reef managers to connect with experts around the world. Our smart monitoring solution will be provided for free to anyone who would like to help understand and protect their local marine ecosystem. 


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Although coral reefs cover only a small fraction of the ocean, they host a wealth of biodiversity and provide critical ecosystems for marine life, as well as for humans. As many people are now aware, many of the world’s coral reefs are threatened. Corals are very sensitive to climate change and have a dramatic response when conditions become unsuitable. When corals undergo sustained stress, such as that caused by warming conditions in the ocean, they eject their beneficial symbiotic algae and appear stark white. This is known as coral bleaching and it is an alarming sight, as if, on land, a rainforest turns from green to white. This dramatic phenomenon recently has captured global attention. Coral scientists around the world are working to both understand and protect coral from the stressors induced both locally (e.g. pollution) as well as globally (e.g. climate change). 

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One of the key indicators in predicting where and when a coral reef will bleach is water temperature. This is where the idea of Aqualink was born. The initial focus of Aqualink is very simple, we want to build a better dataset and to give local reef managers the right tools, and access, to effectively manage their reef. 

Although temperature information is available globally via satellite, the readings are from the skin temperature of the ocean’s surface. To mitigate the bias caused by the sun rapidly heating this layer, the sea surface temperature from NOAA, that used by Coral Reef Watch, is taken only at night. We are hoping to augment this data with underwater temperature sensors to get the data at the reef level. Subsurface temperature data is currently difficult to measure, as most existing solutions require the deployment of an in-situ sensor that needs to be left in place and retrieved later, when the data can be downloaded to a local computer by plugging in directly to the sensor. We are designing Aqualink to ease some of this data access problem. 

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Aqualink is, physically, a smart mooring. It consists of a surface float with solar panels and a satellite connection and a data cable tethered to a weighted anchor. The temperature will be collected both at the reef level as well as just below the surface and streamed in near real-time to our servers. In addition to providing the temperature of the water the coral is actually experiencing, we are hoping the dataset can aid our understanding in the physical oceanography of the sea surface to subsurface temperatures. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of what we are developing, however, is the web app. We want to give local reef managers the tools they need to effectively manage their reef. What this looks like is an application that can organize and structure coral reef surveys. Each reef manager that deploys an Aqualink smart mooring will be able to administer their reef through the app. They can take systematic photos and combine them into time-lapses. They can tag observations for review from a global network of scientists. They can watch indicators such as water temperature and degree-heating-days (the measurement of heat accumulation) and set alerts when thresholds are passed. And they can have access to resources to come up with mitigation strategies when stressors become too high. 

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The data, uploaded from each survey, will be tagged and structured and organized. It will be made available for free to anyone who wants access. We are hoping that by building the physical sensors, the software tools, and the organized dataset, we can contribute to the protection and restoration of the world’s coral reefs. 

Currently, Aqualink is just finishing the development phase. We announced our first product, the smart mooring, in May and have already received over 300 applications. We are thrilled with the responses and hope to get Aqualink into the hands of everyone who applied! We will be testing the first units end-to-end this month and will start shipping globally later this year. Once received, the mooring can be switched on and tossed into the water to begin monitoring the local reef. 

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We are very open to feedback and are looking forward to learning how this system will be used, and in which ways we can make it better. We will be iterating on the design and use as fast as possible to build the best system we can. We also have some really exciting new projects that we will be announcing soon! 

One of these upcoming projects is an underwater drone that can autonomously capture large-scale surveys. Another is the deployment of underwater cameras at select sites, where state-of-the-art neural network models can aid scientists in understanding the ecosystem by providing 24/7 monitoring through computer vision. 

I am thrilled to be able to apply everything I have learned in the self-driving car industry to a problem that I feel is truly important. It is such a great opportunity to be able to contribute to ocean conservation and I hope to learn as much as I can from the conservationists, scientists, and local communities in how to best focus our efforts.  

Get to Know Drew

Drew bio pic

I was interested in many things when I was young. Science was one of them, but so was art and music. When I first read about marine robotics exploring the deep ocean, I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I set my sights on engineering from then on. I went to UC Berkeley to pursue a PhD in intelligent control systems. My lab was funded by the automotive industry and in-turn my research led me into automated driving.

After I graduated, I started a research lab at the university looking into the core technologies underlying self-driving cars. From there, I made a move into industry and was the first hire at Tesla to lead the development of Autopilot. I learned a lot from my experience at Tesla, and that led me into many more roles in different organizations in building self-driving cars. I was VP of Engineering at Cruise that was acquired by GM. I was Director of Engineering at Otto that was acquired and integrated into Uber’s Advanced Technology Group. At Uber I led the deep learning and computer vision teams as well as the technical strategy. I then moved to Voyage as CTO.

Over the 10+ years working on self-driving cars, I was very engaged because of the technical difficulty. The landscape was moving fast and every year had breakthroughs that pushed things even further. However, I found myself thinking more and more about how the technology breakthroughs I was seeing in the self-driving car industry can be applied to conservation technology. My passion for marine robotics was still in me.

What changed since I was a child was my awareness of the problems facing our oceans. The effect became multiplicative in me, and I knew I wanted to focus exclusively on using everything I had learned on the protection of our natural earth. I left the world of self-driving cars to build Aqualink: a global ocean monitoring system. 

Get Involved

Interested in contributing to Aqualink and collecting data at your own local reef? Apply to receive your sensor kit and become an Aqualink citizen scientist here. You can learn more about Aqualink and future opportunities to get involved worldwide on the Aqualink website.

What technologies would you like to see Aqualink explore in the future? Start a discussion in our group forum!

Continue the discussion… Marine Conservation