How Robots Are Helping To Restore Coral Reefs Around The World

Coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on the planet, but they are also under threat from climate change, pollution, overfishing, and other human activities. To save these precious habitats, scientists and engineers are developing innovative ways to use robots to help revive coral reefs.

Coralbots: The Underwater Gardeners

One of the challenges of coral restoration is to transplant healthy corals from nurseries to damaged areas of the reef. This is usually done by divers, but it can be time-consuming, costly, and risky. To overcome these limitations, a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland is developing underwater robots that can work in groups to repair coral reefs. These robots, dubbed “coralbots”, are designed to mimic the collective behaviour of bees and ants. They can communicate with each other, coordinate their actions, and adapt to changing conditions. The team is still training the software that will control the bots to recognise corals and distinguish them from other sea objects.

The coralbots are equipped with cameras, sensors, grippers, and glue dispensers. They can autonomously locate suitable spots on the reef, pick up coral fragments from nurseries, and attach them to the substrate. The team hopes that the coralbots will be able to restore large areas of reef faster and cheaper than human divers.

How Robots Are Helping To Restore Coral Reefs Around The World

Coralmaker: The 3D Printed Solution

Another approach to coral restoration is to create artificial structures that can serve as a base for coral growth. This is what marine biologist Taryn Foster is doing in the Abrolhos Islands, 40 miles from the coast of Western Australia. She has formed a start-up firm called Coralmaker and has partnered with San Francisco-based engineering software firm Autodesk to design and produce 3D printed coral skeletons.

The coral skeletons are made from a limestone-type concrete and are shaped like flat discs with grooves and a handle. They are designed to be easy to mass produce, transport, and deploy by divers or remotely-operated vehicles. The discs have small plugs where coral fragments can be grafted. These fragments are then placed in batches on the seabed, where they can grow and fuse with the artificial base. Ms Foster says that this method bypasses several years of calcification growth that it takes for corals to reach a certain size. She has tested this system on four different species of corals and says that they are all growing wonderfully.

Future Prospects: The Role Of Robotics In Coral Conservation

Robots are not only useful for restoring coral reefs, but also for monitoring and protecting them. For example, researchers at Queensland University of Technology have developed a robot called RangerBot that can detect and kill crown-of-thorns starfish, a major predator of corals. Another example is Reef Rover, a robot developed by MIT that can autonomously map and survey coral reefs using sonar and optical sensors.

These robots can provide valuable data and insights for scientists and managers who are working to conserve coral reefs. They can also reduce the human impact on these fragile ecosystems by replacing or supplementing human activities that may cause harm or disturbance.

Robots are not a magic bullet for saving coral reefs, however. They still depend on human intervention, maintenance, and supervision. They also face technical challenges such as power supply, navigation, communication, and durability in harsh marine environments. Moreover, they cannot address the root causes of coral decline, such as global warming, ocean acidification, and overexploitation. Therefore, robots should be seen as complementary tools that can support and enhance human efforts to preserve and restore coral reefs.

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