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A Swarm of Robots Could Repair Coral Reefs

A swarm of autonomous intelligent robots, or coralbots, could be put to work repairing and restoring coral reefs in areas that have been damaged by weather, human negligence, or destructive fishing practices.

Coral reefs are an incredibly important part of the ocean ecosystem, providing food and shelter for many organisms under the sea, as well as providing a living for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

When coral reefs are damaged, they can be given a headstart in restoration by the transplantation of healthy pieces of coral, but because human divers are limited in terms of the depth of the reefs, the process isn’t a solution for deep water locations.

It’s also a time-intensive process, and because the coral reefs are also very slow-growing, speeding up coral repair with automation could boost restoration efforts.

To that end, a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University are working to develop a swarm of intelligent, autonomous robots to help save coral reefs by piecing together damaged coral fragments so they can regrow. This swarm of “coralbots” would collaborate, yet work individually, according to a set of simple rules.

The team’s coralbot would be based on an existing autonomous underwater vehicle, the Nessie 4, with added flexible arms and grippers, plus the necessary computing hardware and accompanying software to enable the device as an individual in a swarm.

“What makes our vision work is our idea of using swarm intelligence methods to control robot behaviour. Swarm intelligence explains how simple behaviours in a group of creatures can lead to complex and functional structures – this is how bees build hives, and termites build complex mounds, and beavers build dams.” – Coralbots

A Kickstarter campaign is currently underway to raise the necessary funds for the project (an estimated $100,000 USD), which would then allow the team to build two or more coralbots that could demonstrate proof of concept and perhaps attract more interest and funding to pursue it further. The team believes that the concept of swarm intelligence combined with underwater robotics and computer vision could seriously advance marine conservation across a wide range of issues.

Help fund the coralbots at Kickstarter, or read more about the team at Heriot-Watt University.

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