Coralbots project Heriot-Watt University provides a smart solution for helping to repair coral reefs around Scotland

Extract taken from The Student: Science and Environment article

Alua Suleimenova interviews Dr Lea-Anne Henry, marine ecologist at Heriot Watt University, about her research into coral reefs and the latest reef conservation project: Coralbots.

Coral reefs are often called the ‘rainforests of the oceans’ because they harbour the highest marine biodiversity. Although beautiful, coral reefs are extremely fragile and can be easily damaged by deep-sea practices, water pollution and climate change. They are able to regenerate naturally, but it takes corals decades if not centuries to create reef structures. Fortunately, the new project initiated by the Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology at Heriot-Watt University provides a smart solution for helping to repair coral reefs around Scotland in the form of intelligent robots, or ‘coralbots’. The Student spoke to Dr Lea-Anne Henry, marine ecologist and the lead scientist on the project.

How do coralbots work and carry out their mission to restore damaged ecosystems?

We aim to use existing autonomous undersea robotic platforms at the Ocean Systems Laboratory at Heriot-Watt University and modify them as ‘coralbots’. A photographic and sonar survey of the damaged reef will first be performed to create a video mosaic of the reef, and we will visually inspect this to determine where coral fragments should be transplanted. Following this, a ‘swarm’ of five to eight robots will be deployed either from shore or boat. Each robot will follow a simple set of ‘micro-rules’ like the ones bees, ants and termites use to build 3D structures like hives and nests, thus the robots are highly bio-inspired. A lot of work needs to be done to modify manipulator arms on the robots, but this is an exciting challenge for our engineers.

How did the Coralbots Project get started?

Coralbots got started as a collaboration between myself (a marine ecologist) and Professor David Corne (an artificial intelligence mathematician) during a series of workshops hosted by the Heriot-Watt Crucible programme, which also hosted many University of Edinburgh staff and students. The idea of Crucible is to bring scientists from widely different disciplines together to see if there is some common ground that could spawn innovations. We plan to use the Crucible funds we received to develop and simulate the swarm intelligence and computer vision. Future trials of existing robotic platforms are expected to take place in Scotland in the next year. We also hope to have computer simulations ready by the spring for the 2013 Edinburgh Science Festival.

How does the Coralbots project differ from other coral reef conservation techniques?

The unique advantage of Coralbots is that they replace human mediated transplantation. Divers can take weeks to months to transplant fragments, usually from a coral nursery elsewhere, with varying levels of success. These methods can be successful, but humans are limited to the time spent underwater, and they can never achieve reef restoration in the deep-sea where we also have coral reefs like the ones off Scotland. Thus, undersea robotics have a distinct advantage, working 24 hours non-stop with no danger to humans, at least until battery power runs out. Working as a swarm, it also means that even if one or two robots malfunction, the others continue to work.

What are the future prospects of implementing coralbots on a large scale?

The idea of using swarm robotics to restore ecosystems is very exciting, and as far we we know, nothing like this has ever been achieved. But it is easy to speculate that the technology could help re-plant forests or seagrass meadows.

What are the most interesting and exciting outcomes you found for yourself through the Coralbots Project?

The most exciting outcome has been the outpouring of global public support from our television appearances, radio and newspaper interviews, blogs and tweets, so we are starting up a crowdfunding site on the US website Kickstarter to get more funds. The most interesting outcome has been watching the excitement and support given to us across disciplines, biology, mathematics, computer science and engineering.

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