Australia training robots to revive coral reefs

There are no palm trees or other verdant greenery to be found. However, as soon as you enter the water, you will witness wide variety of fish and coral species.

“It’s an extraordinary part of the world,” says marine researcher Taryn Foster from the Abrolhos Islands, located approximately 65 kilometres (40 miles) off the coast of Western Australia.

Polyps are the animals that make up corals, and they are most commonly seen in tropical environments. Calcium carbonate is taken from the surrounding water by the soft-bodied polyp in order to construct its tough outer shell. Over the course of time, the accumulation of these tough shells leads to the formation of the reefs that we see today.

Coral reefs may only cover 0.2 per cent of the ocean floor, but they are home to more than 25 per cent of all marine species.

Corals are susceptible to disease and mortality because of their sensitivity to heat and acidification, which has increased in recent years alongside the warming and acidification of the oceans.

Bleaching is the process that causes damaged corals to turn white; Ms. Foster has personal experience with this phenomenon.

There may be a loss of between 70 and 90 percent of the world’s reefs if there is an increase in sea temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius, as stated by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

Some researchers in the scientific community believe that they will no longer exist beyond the year 2070.

According to Cathie Page, a researcher at Australian Institute of Marine Science, “climate change is most significant threat to coral reefs in the world.”

Ms. Page goes on to say that “severe bleaching events caused by climate change can have very negative effects,” and that “we do not yet have good solutions.”

The process of reestablishing coral reefs typically involves transferring young corals grown in nurseries to areas of reef that have been destroyed.

However, the labour can be tedious and expensive, and as a result, only a small portion of the reefs that are in danger are receiving assistance.

Ms. Foster is conducting research on a method that she believes can expedite the process of reef revitalization in the waters surrounding the Abrolhos Islands.

This is accomplished by grafting coral fragments onto little plugs, which are then inserted into a base that has been molded. After then, those bases are positioned on the ocean floor in groups.

Ms. Foster was the one who came up with the idea for the base, which is a limestone-based concrete disc with grooves and a handle that has the appearance of a flat disc.

Ms. Foster notes that they desired it to be something that could be manufactured in large quantities at an affordable cost. It is also simple for a remotely operated vehicle or a diver to deploy the device.

The findings, up to this point, have been very positive.

“We have successfully tested a number of variants of our coral skeletons in real-world conditions. In addition to that, we tested it out on four different kinds of animals,” she continues. They are all doing incredibly well in terms of their growth.

“We’re bypassing several years of calcification growth that it takes to get to that base size,” she explains. “That’s because we’re doing it this way.”

Ms. Foster has launched a new business venture under the name Coral Maker, and she has high expectations that a collaboration with the engineering software company Autodesk, based in San Francisco, would speed up the process even more.

Their researchers have been teaching an artificial intelligence how to control collaborative robots, also known as cobots, which operate in close proximity to humans.

According to Ms. Foster, “some of these processes in coral propagation are just repetitive pick and place tasks, and they’re ideal for robotic automation.”

A robotic arm has the capability of grafting or gluing coral fragments onto seed plugs. One of the others places them in the base while the vision systems are used to make decisions regarding how to seize it.

According to Nic Carey, senior principal research scientist at Autodesk, “Every piece of coral is different, even within the same species,” which is why it is necessary for robots to be able to recognize coral fragments and understand how to manage them.

“So far, they’ve done an excellent job of managing the variety of coral shapes,” we were told.

Moving the robots out of the laboratory is the next step, which according to Ms. Foster should take place sometime within the next 12–18 months.

However, there are numerous obstacles to overcome in the real world: moist, living coral must be handled carefully, and it is possible that this may take place on a moving boat. Additionally, saltwater can be harmful to electronic devices.

“We need to ensure that we can shield the more vulnerable components,” says Ms. Carey.

There is also the issue of how expensive such equipment is. Coral Maker is placing its bets on demand from the travel and hospitality sector, and the company intends to issue biodiversity credits, which function in a manner analogous to carbon credits.

According to AIMS scientist Cathie Page, “to stay ahead of the curve and enable coral reefs to survive a warming future requires a substantial investment of time, money, and human capital,”

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