Scottish-made robots can repair world’s coral reefs, say scientists

Coral like this could be repaired `in days or weeks`
Coral like this could be repaired `in days or weeks`
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SCOTTISH scientists are developing a swarm of intelligent robots to save coral reefs.

A team of “coralbots”, each individually working to simple rules, will piece together damaged bits of coral, allowing them to regrow.

Coralbots will operate under microrules telling them what to pick up and discard

Coralbots will operate under microrules telling them what to pick up and discard

The approach is inspired by the behaviour of natural swarms of insects such as bees, wasps and termites which collectively build substantial and complex structures.

After damage, some coral fragments will regrow if reassembled on the reef framework. At present, this is done by volunteer scuba divers but the method has only limited success because they cannot spend long periods underwater nor reach depths of over 200 metres where some of the deep-sea coral grows.

Now, researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh are developing squad of coralbots to do the work instead.

The swarm of autonomous underwater robots will operate according to a simple set of “micro-rules” to seek out coral fragments and re-cement them to the reef.

Dr Lea-Anne Henry, who is leading the project, said: “The biggest most immediate threat to deep-sea corals like the ones we have in waters off western Scotland is the bottom-fishing industry that damages and kills these corals.”

She has been studying Scottish deep-sea reefs for nearly a decade and says they continue to be at risk from fishing.

Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, providing homes to thousands of animals.

The annual global contribution of corals to the economy, through supporting fisheries, coastal protection and tourism, is estimated at £40 billion.

Professor David Corne, who is in charge of developing the 
micro-rules controlling the robot behaviour, said: “This project explores one of the most intriguing and impressive feats of natural ‘swarm intelligence’, whereby collections of simple-minded individuals collaborate to construct complex and functional structures.

“Exactly how this happens is only partly understood, but scientists have several clues and ideas, and we will exploit these ideas to achieve reef reconstruction.”

The scientists explained that using a swarm of coralbots has many benefits including reducing the engineering requirements for the robots and robustness; if one coralbot is damaged then the others will still be able to complete the task. “The most exciting thing about this project is that it offers us the potential to restore the function of reefs, both shallow and deep, across the globe, which we all enjoy and benefit from in some way.

“Swarms of robots could be instantaneously deployed after a hurricane or in a deep area known to be impacted by trawling, and rebuild the reef in days to weeks, instead of years to centuries,” added Dr Henry.

The team is supported by Heriot-Watt Crucible Funding which is specifically designed to kick-start exciting and ambitious interdisciplinary projects.

Scientists will “train” the robots to recognise coral fragments from other objects such as rocks, litter, sponges and sea creatures. The team aims to expand the undersea applications into environmental monitoring, underwater archaeology and the discovery of new species.