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Coral-repairing robots take a step closer to reality

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April 16, 2013

A coralbot prototype that the research team hopes to further develop

A coralbot prototype that the research team hopes to further develop

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Since humans are responsible for much of the damage to coral reefs, it makes sense that we should try and help repair them. That’s exactly what a team from the Herriot-Watt University’s Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology is attempting to do with the development of underwater “coralbots.” Now anyone can add their support to this worthy effort with the launch of a Kickstarter campaign that will help make the robots a reality.

The research team has already built a couple of prototype coralbots that can be equipped with onboard camera, computer, and flexible arms and grippers. These would come together to allow the robot to reattach healthy pieces of coral back onto a reef to help speed up the healing process. This time-consuming task is currently performed by scuba divers – or not at all. It also makes repairing reefs at greater depths difficult or impossible.

Coral reef repair is time-consuming for scuba divers

The team’s plan is to develop a swarm of robots that would autonomously navigate across a damaged coral reef and transplant pieces of healthy coral as they went. The Heriot-Watt researchers says they have already tested their coralbot prototypes at sea but need help both with developing the computer vision system that would allow the robots to visually identify healthy bits of coral and with configuring a manipulator arm with which the robots could pick up and place the coral pieces in the right spot.

The team is hoping to raise US$107,000 to allow them to put all the pieces together and build two robots to publicly demonstrate the feasibility of the technology on a coral reef in a public aquarium. They hope that this will help attract further funds to ultimately realize their goal of producing a team of eight coralbots that could be used on coral reefs around the globe.

Given the nature of the project, backer rewards are limited to recognition of involvement in the form of names printed on the project’s website or the robots themselves. But the real reward is the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get from knowing you’re helping preserve one of the planet’s most important ecosystems.

Dr Lea-Anne Henry, the leader of the project, gives an overview of the coralbots in the Kickstarter pitch video below.

Sources: Heriot-Watt University, Kickstarter

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
10 Comments

Am I missing something here? Surely if the coral is dead in an area, there is a real reason for its death, hence until you remove that from the equation, simply putting new live coral in that area will kill it, and you now dont have any where it was harvested from. Or did I miss something.

This will only work with lots of education, and understanding of external influences.

James Evans
16th April, 2013 @ 06:27 am PDT

Why not configure the coralbot to be controlled by humans? We need more jobs for humans, not more robots.

Constantine Kalpaxis
16th April, 2013 @ 09:57 am PDT

I wish I could persuade you -constantine- that our society does not get richer by paying humans to do jobs that robots can do.

And that just having jobs for people to do, does not benefit our society.

I am reminded of the story of two men who were laid off from their jobs on a construction project because the company was now using heavy machinery...

One said to the other,

Imagine how many men could be working with shovels to do this job!

The other said,

Imagine how many could be working if they used spoons.

Which goes to show ... _______

I hope you can fill in the blank.

JFP
16th April, 2013 @ 12:44 pm PDT

What a ridiculous money-pit of an idea, it looks an attempt by BP to stop the world hating them. I wonder what they really want the robots for.

It would take a billion of these things just to fix the ongoing damage from anchors dragging in storms, and I doubt they'll ever work in rough or low-vis conditions

Ozuzi
16th April, 2013 @ 04:13 pm PDT

Have test site in Hawaii, then ship worldwide for those islands etc needing reef repair & PR work at aquariums worldwide & Science Channel.

Have Hawaii as Test base & distrib center for coralbots.

Stephen N Russell
16th April, 2013 @ 05:57 pm PDT

In Australia giant clams are often overturned after cyclones and some dedicated people go out and turn them upright again to save them. Maybe this robot could also do this. The Australian Great Barrier Reef Authority may be interested.

Sandra Baxendell
16th April, 2013 @ 06:17 pm PDT

I've done a lot of coral diving and coral lives where the ocean is rough which keeps them clean, at least the ones in under 50' where most of the destruction is.

What kills reefs most is dog curbing, septic tanks, ag, yard chemicals, etc wastes. Anything that feeds algae, etc that will cover, smother them. They like a very poor food environment and clear water.

jerryd
16th April, 2013 @ 06:34 pm PDT

"And that just having jobs for people to do, does not benefit our society."

In any circumstance like this, there's always a tipping point where the productivity gained through automation is offset by the loss in wages

Ron Johnson
18th April, 2013 @ 01:48 am PDT

This endeavor is very virtuous if and only if you can figure out a way to make the robot calculate discrepancies between corals and non-corals... Which is the primary pitfall with all this.

However, it is possible.

One possible path in all this is with Python. You could use OpenCV as a means to autonomously process imagery / video and then "train" the system to recognize whatever shapes you choose to train it against. In doing so, I would imagine that the CPU speeds and storage requirements for this project would be pretty impressive, but, again, it is possible.

Wolf_22
18th April, 2013 @ 06:07 am PDT

Makes sense in the deep water reefs, but if you have ever been diving I'm sure the is no lack of volunteers and the chance to use a water scooter, I'm there !

Jay Finke
18th April, 2013 @ 11:08 am PDT
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