Robots to help save the reefs


Help is at hand to rebuild damaged coral reefs — with a swarm of robots.

The team of 'coralbots', each working individually to simple rules, will piece together damaged pieces of coral, allowing them to regrow.

The approach is inspired by the behaviour of natural swarms of insects such as bees and wasps, which collectively build substantial and complex structures.

Developed by a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, the project provides an innovative solution to restore the function of both shallow and deep reefs worldwide.

Dr Lea-Anne Henry, who is leading the project, has been studying Scottish deep-sea reefs for nearly a decade. She said: "The biggest most immediate threat to deep-sea corals like the ones we have in waters off western Scotland is the bottom-fishing industry that damages and kills these corals."

The deep waters west of Scotland are characterised by the occurrence of large reef-forming corals similar to those in the tropics. Damaged corals can re-grow, but this can take decades.

Volunteer scuba divers can help assist regrowth by reassembling coral fragments, but they are limited by the length of time they are able to stay underwater and the depths of the coral, which may be too far down for divers to reach.

But by following a simple set of rules, a swarm of coralbots will be 'trained' to distinguish pieces of coral from other objects such as rocks, rubbish and sea creatures and then to locate the fragments and re-cement them to the reef.

Dr Henry said: "Swarms of robots could be instantaneously deployed after a hurricane or in a deep area known to be impacted by trawling, and rebuild the reef in days to weeks, instead of years to centuries."

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