Underwater robots to repair Scotland’s coral reefs

Researchers are developing underwater robots that have been tasked with saving coral reefs.

Updated: Aug 29, 2012, 15:44 PM IST

London: Researchers are developing underwater robots that have been tasked with saving coral reefs.

Dubbed “coralbots”, the robots being developed at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, are being designed to work in groups, in a similar manner to bees and ants.

The team is still “training” the software that will control the bots to “recognise” corals and distinguish them from other sea objects.

Corals are get easily damaged by pollution and destructive fishing practices, and it takes decades for them to re-grow.

They are colonies of tiny living organisms, most commonly found in warm shallow waters in the tropics.

But the depths of the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Scotland are home to cold-water reefs.

When they get damaged, scuba divers re-cement broken fragments, helping them re-grow - but it is tricky for divers to reach depths over 200m.

Coralbots, the researchers hope, will be a lot more efficient, able to repair the reefs in days or weeks.

The team, which consists of a marine biologist, an artificial intelligence scientist, a roboticist, and a machine vision scientist, said it was trying to raise 2 million pounds to hold a first demonstration.

According to the scientists, if they got all the cash they needed, the bots could embark on their first mission within a year.

Initially, the robots would be adaptations of those already developed at the university’s Ocean Systems Lab.

They would be about a metre long, with built-in video, image-processing and simple manipulation tools, such as scoops and arms, and would operate in “swarms”.

Swarming in nature is collective action of a large number of agents that are individually stupid but collectively can complete complex tasks.

“Our key idea is that coral reef restoration could be achieved via swarm intelligence, which allows us to exploit co-operative behaviours we see from natural swarms of bees, termites and ants that build complex structures such as hives and nests,” the BBC quoted marine biologist Lea-Anne Henry who is lead scientist on the project at Heriot-Watt as saying.

She said the robots would be intelligent enough to navigate and avoid obstacles.

“We are developing new intelligent object recognition routines, exploiting the data from hundreds of coral reef images, to enable each swarm member to recognise coral fragments and distinguish them from other materials and objects in the environment in real-time,” she added.