Autonomous swarms of underwater coral-bots could soon be working to repair the world's damaged reefs. The project is the brainchild of a team of marine biologists and robotics experts, based largely at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University. However, with research still at an early stage, funding is needed and the team have launched a kickstarter campaign to raise the difference necessary to drive the research forward.
An estimated 20 percent of the world's coral reefs have already been destroyed and with slow regrowth rate, the damage is practically permanent.
Finding pieces of still living coral and clustering them together accelarates the regeneration process. This is something that's currently done only by hand, for example by the Fragments of Hope coral nurseries in Belize. However, the time required and limitations associated with diving make it difficult to scale up. Automating the process would allow the rebuilding of damaged reefs on a scale never before seen.
The early stages of the Coral-bots project are being developed using "Nessie 4", a robot built by the Ocean Systems Laboratory at Heriot-Watt. The team say they have successfully tested their prototype in open water, and have trained its visual recognition systems to identify pieces of coral, though this is yet to be tested at sea.
If the team is able to raise the extra $107,000 (£70,000) for the next phases, Coral-bots will be able to incorporate robot arms to grab and move coral. The money will also make it possible to test the bots working together and demonstrate the core concept, swarm intelligence. A basic tutorial on this method is available here: http://www.macs.hw.ac.uk/~dwcorne/Teaching/SIchapterforHandbook_NC.pdf
A video of the team's pitch for kickstarter is below: