Robots are being trained to help revive coral reefs

Taryn Foster, a marine biologist from the Abrolhos Islands, 40 miles off the coast of Western Australia, says, “It’s a really special part of the world.”

“Neither palm trees nor succulent plants are present. However, as soon as you enter the water, you observe a variety of tropical fish and coral. Polyps, which are organisms that form coral, are primarily found in tropical waters. A soft-bodied polyp creates a hard outer shell by extracting calcium carbonate from the sea. Over time, these hard shells form and form the foundations of the reefs we see today. Although coral reefs cover only 0.2% of the seabed, they provide habitat for more than a quarter of marine species. However, the creatures are sensitive to heat and acidification, so in recent years, as oceans have warmed and become more acidic, corals have become vulnerable to disease and death.

Damaged corals turn white, a process known as bleaching, which Ms Foster witnessed first hand. According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, an increase in water temperature of 1.5 C could cause the loss of between 70% and 90% of the world’s reefs. Some scientists think they will be completely gone by 2070. According to Cathie Page of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), “climate change is the greatest threat to coral reefs globally.” 

“Severe bleaching caused by climate change can have very negative impacts,” Ms Page continues, “and we don’t have good solutions yet.” Coral restoration efforts usually involve transplanting small nursery-grown corals onto damaged reefs. But the work can be slow and expensive, and only a fraction of threatened reefs receive help. In the shallow waters of the Abrolhos Islands, Ms Foster is testing a system she hopes will revive the reefs more quickly. It involves grafting coral fragments into small plugs that are inserted into a pressed base. These bases are then placed in batches on the seabed. Ms. Foster designed the base, which is shaped like a flat disk with grooves and a handle, and is made of limestone-type concrete.

We wanted it to be something that could be mass produced affordably, says Ms. Foster. “And simple divers’ deployment or a remote-controlled vehicle.” So far, the results are positive. “We tested various coral skeleton prototypes before deploying them. We tested it on four different species as well, he adds. “They’re all doing amazing. “We are bypassing the several years of calcification growth that is required to reach this baseline size,” he says. Ms. Foster founded a start-up called Coral Maker and hopes the partnership with San Francisco-based Autodesk will further accelerate the process. Their researchers train artificial intelligence to control collaborative robots (cobots) that work closely with humans.

According to Ms. Foster, “Some of these coral propagation processes are just repetitive pick-and-place tasks and are ideally suited for robotic automation.” The robotic arm can graft or glue coral fragments onto seed plugs. Others place them on the base and use camera systems to decide how to grab it. “Each piece of coral is different, even within the same species, so robots need to recognize coral fragments and how to handle them,” says Nic Carey, chief scientist at Autodesk. “So far, they are very good at managing the variability of coral shapes.” The next step is to move the robots out of the lab, which Ms. Foster says should happen within the next 12-18 months.

However, the real world presents many challenges: wet live corals need to be handled gently, perhaps on a moving ship, and saltwater can potentially damage electronics. “We need to make sure we can protect the more vulnerable components,” Ms. Carey says. Such technology also has high costs. Coral Maker is banking on demand from the tourism industry and plans to issue biodiversity credits that work similarly to carbon credits. “Staying on the cutting edge and enabling coral reefs to survive a warming future requires a significant investment of time, money and human capital,” says AIMS scientist Cathie Page.


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