Deep sea diving robots to save world’s coral reefs

Lea-Anne Henry, Neil Robertson, David Lane and David Corne. Picture: Contributed
Lea-Anne Henry, Neil Robertson, David Lane and David Corne. Picture: Contributed
2
Have your say

SCIENTISTS in the Capital are raising funds to create robots capable of repairing endangered coral reefs unreachable by deep sea divers.

The experts at Heriot-Watt University have teamed up with a Marine Systems Engineering Laboratory at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Centre in Massachusetts and a coral “nursery” in Belize to create the “Coralbots”, which will use special arms to repair damaged 
underwater ecosystems.

David Crone, a professor of computer science at Heriot-Watt University, said: “In September last year we had an event called The Heriot-Watt Crucible, which was seeking to bring experts in different disciplines together to see what they could learn from each other. The proposal for this collaboration between marine biologists and 
robotics experts to preserve and repair coral reefs was one of the winning ideas.”

Having secured enough money from the university to start the project, the scientists now need a further £68,890 to manufacture and “train” the first of two bots, and they are hoping the support of businesses, schools and concerned individuals will help them reach their target.

Dr Lea-Anne Henry, a Research Fellow at the Centre
for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology (CMBB) at Heriot-Watt, explained: “Coral reefs are among the most biodiverse systems on the planet and are absolutely essential to the ecosystem. They also support the livelihoods of 500 million people across the globe. Most 
people think you only get coral reefs in the tropics, but they exist all over the world, though at far 
deeper levels in cold waters.”

While many divers are helping to repair tropical coral reefs by attaching coral grown in nurseries, reefs in deeper waters which have been damaged by practices such as deep sea trawling cannot be reached by humans. And though humans may have the best intentions when repairing the reefs, accidental damage caused by diving equipment bumping into the reefs is not uncommon.

Dr Henry said: “There are already robots that can visit parts of the ocean where divers just can’t go. What we need to do is attach arms to these robots that are sensitive enough to pick up coral without damaging it, and also programme them to recognise different corals and to repair and even completely rebuild reefs.

“We’ve done the work, we just need the funds to put it into practice.”

If all goes to plan the first two Coralbots will be ready for a test run in Belize this November, aiding the Fragments of Hope Coral Nursery to repair local reefs, before moving on to deep sea reefs over the next few years.

Anyone who chooses to sponsor their efforts gets more than just a warm fuzzy feeling.

Prof Crone said: “We’re offering different incentives depending on your pledge. If you make a bigger donation, a stone with your name etched on it will be included in the first reef we construct.”

For more information, or to make a donation, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/

The marine machine

Robotic mini-submarine would be used for repairing deep sea coral reef that has been destroyed and scattered by trawling, but cannot be reached by humans.

1. Robot is sent down to ocean bed. Area and positioning of coral fragments will have been mapped in.

2. Robot moves to

co-ordinates denoting the rough centre of the new reef.

3. Robot then starts ‘looking’ around at the bits of coral scattered about. It has been ‘trained’ to tell the difference between dead and living coral (living coral has moving ‘mouths’ and antennae, while dead coral will no longer move).

4. Picks up dead coral with its robot arms and brings it to centre of new reef, building the base of the new reef.

5. Once base is built, robot goes back for live coral and starts piling it on top. It will have been programmed on how best to put living coral back together so it can grow and also provide places for plants and animals to live.