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Planet Inspired: Coral reefs at risk, robots repair them

by PlanetInspired (writer), , September 18, 2012

An innovative project from Scotland’s Herriot Watt University

The robots designed in Scotland work as a team, like bees, and can dive to depths over 200 meters, unlike scuba divers that now do the job. Thanks to a database in the development phase, they look for coral fragments to be reattached to the reef.

In the last 30 years, coral reefs have severely declined, so much so that they risk extinction within a few decades. A recent study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) showed that less than 10% of the reef in the Caribbean is still alive today, compared to 50% in the 1970s.

According to the World Resources Institute in Washington, if coastal development and the impact of fishing are not reduced, which together with climate change are the main causes of the destruction of these underwater ecosystems, all the coral in the world will be in danger of extinction by 2050.

The consequences would be devastating for nearly 275 million people living in coastal villages: the coral reefs are in fact an important natural defense against erosion, storms and waves, and their annual contribution to the economy (tourism, coastal protection, fishing) amounts to nearly €50 million.

The new technology developed in the laboratories of Scotland's Heriot-Watt University has provided a glimmer of hope in such a gloomy scenario. Inspired by the behavior of bees, scientists have designed new robots –coralbots – capable of repairing the coral reefs in a few days. Nature takes years. The robots work as a team, precisely like bees, and can dive to depths over 200 meters, unlike scuba divers that now do the job. The solution is innovative: the coralbot "swarms" have been designed to look for coral fragments and reattach them to the reef; but before this is possible, they must further develop their recognition capability, with the creation of a database with hundreds of pictures which, in real time, allow the robots to distinguish coral fragments from other materials.

This project explores one of the most intriguing and impressive feats of natural 'swarm intelligence'," explained David Corne, professor of Mathematics at Heriot-Watt, " whereby collections of simple-minded individuals collaborate to construct complex and functional structures". In the case of the coralbots, this means that all members of the swarm share the same knowledge; therefore, if one is damaged, another can take its place.
The first mission where the coralbots will see action will most likely be off the Scottish coast. In these deep waters, the threat to coral reefs is mainly from bottom fishing. Therefore, it is an ideal place to test this new technology that could help prevent the disappearance of corals from the sea: but this also depends on the urgent creation of stricter regulations, invoked by the scientific community, that limit the impact of human activity on marine ecosystems.

Source: Planet Inspired



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PlanetInspired is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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