Sustainability-in-Tech : ‘Cobots’ To Restore Reefs
With many of the world’s coral reefs being damaged by heat and acidification, one startup has developed a system to restore reefs at scale with the help of trained AI robots..
Coral Reefs Struggling
The world’s coral reefs only cover 0.2 per cent of the seafloor, but they provide a vital habitat to more than a quarter of marine species. Coral reefs, however, are currently in decline due to climate change (leading to ocean warming and acidification), overfishing, pollution, coastal development, and disease. All these factors have led to coral bleaching events (a sign of stressed corals) and have hindered coral growth and reproduction, thereby disrupting the balance of reef ecosystems.
The grim warning from scientists is that even just a 1.5C increase in water temperature could result in anywhere between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the world’s reefs being lost (Global Coral Reel Monitoring Network), which could have dramatic effects on the ocean ecosystem.
Coral Maker is a startup, founded by Dr Taryn Foster, that seeks to tackle the problems being faced by coral. To do this, the company uses a combination of innovative technology and science to help scale up the restoration rate and success of coral reefs through transplanting tiny, cultivated corals into damaged reefs.
Coral Maker mass produces premade stone coral skeletons which, when deployed as part of its system, helps to significantly reduce the number of years of coral calcification (skeletal growth) required to reach adult size. The skeletons consist of coral fragments grafted into small plugs and inserted into a moulded base.
The system, which can be deployed close to the reefs where it’s needed enables the low cost and fast production of 10,000 premade coral skeletons per day, each with the capacity to hold 6-8 coral fragments. The system’s carbon footprint is reduced by using recycled stone waste from the construction industry and the fact that the skeletons can be produced close to where they’re needed reduces transportation emissions.
Since the idea is to rejuvenate reefs at scale using thousands of coral skeletons per day, each positioned in the same way, the repetitive nature of the manufacturing of these base skeletons is work is suited to robots. Coral Maker’s system, therefore, automates its coral propagation by using robotics and AI (supplied by San Francisco based engineering software firm Autodesk).
These automated robots, designed for onsite deployment at the restoration site, and designed to collaborative with people (freeing up humans to do more complex work) have been dubbed ‘cobots’ (because of the collaboration). The pre-trained cobots are essentially AI powered robotic arms that can graft or glue coral fragments to the seed plugs and place them in the bases.
Use Vision Systems and AI To Decide How Best To Handle Coral
The cobots have their own vision systems which, combined with AI, enables them to decide how best to grab the bases. This vision technology is needed because each piece of coral, even within the same species is slightly different and living coral fragments are very delicate.
Next Step – Put The Robots On Boats
The next step for the company (estimated to take 12-18 months) is to find a way to successfully enable the robot arm ‘cobot’ to be deployed on a boat right next to where it is needed on the reef without any of its vulnerable components being damaged by salt water, and in a way that keeps it stable enough to carry out its delicate work.
What Does This Mean For Your Organisation?
The earth’s coral provides a vital habitat to more than a quarter of marine species. Losing our coral would mean a loss of many species and biodiversity, and the complete disruption of marine food webs and ecosystems. There would also be other impacts, e.g. economic (a decline in fisheries and tourism), and a loss of the potential to find new pharmaceuticals. Reefs also act as a coastline buffer and with so many large storms associated with climate change, having no living reefs could actually result in more coastal flooding. It’s clear, therefore, that something has to be done very soon to restore reefs damaged by heat (warmer water temperatures) and acidification. Coral Maker’s system, combining as it does technology and science, gives many benefits, e.g. large areas can be covered quickly as time is saved by using pre-formed skeletons, it uses recycled materials, plus it can shipped and operated anywhere. This makes it a credible way to start trying to reverse some of the damage done to reefs, thereby safeguarding the vital habitats and ecosystems that support so much marine life.
This is a great example of how technologies like AI and robotics can make an important and positive difference in a way that benefits all of us. The hope is that if the cost of the system can be kept low enough, and there is enough investment (money and human capital), and the ‘cobots’ can be made to work effectively on boats (which could take more than a year), the system, and other ideas can be put to work in multiple locations as quickly as possible.