Scientist successfully grows coral reefs using a new system

AI-powered robot to aid coral propagation by deploying a new system made from limescale concrete in hopes of reviving coral reefs.
Shubhangi Dua
New mould base technology could help preserve marine ecosystem
New mould base technology could help preserve marine ecosystem

Autodesk / YouTube 

Preserving coral reefs has become imminent now more than ever, with rising ocean temperatures and climate change threatening marine ecosystems. 

A new technology has presented a timely solution to save the limited coral reefs Earth has left. Taryn Foster, a marine biologist from the Abrolhos Islands, 40 miles from the coast of Western Australia, is testing a system that could revive reefs comparatively faster. 

If the coral reefs are not shielded imminently, it’s possible that the sea could experience losses of between 70 percent and 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs if the water temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, Global Coral Reel Monitoring Network reported. Scientists believe that the reefs could diminish altogether by 2070.

The aim is to protect corals from extinction. According to the BBC, corals are animals called polyps primarily found in tropical waters. These soft-bodied polyps eventually create sturdy external shells by extracting calcium carbonate from the ocean.

Preserving marine life

Over an extended period, these robust shells build up to ultimately shape the basis of the present-day coral reefs. However, these reefs only cover about 0.2 percent of the seafloor but provide habitat to more than a quarter of the marine life. 

Now, corals are threatened by the ongoing climate change. The ocean becoming warmer and more acidic has made these creatures more sensitive and vulnerable to disease and death.

Foster told the BBC that her experience has shown the damaged corals turn white – this is a bleaching process. 

Alluding to coral bleaching, Cathie Page from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) stated: "Climate change is the most significant threat to coral reefs around the world. Severe bleaching events caused by climate change can have very negative effects and we don't have good solutions yet"

Common practices to restore the reefs usually involve transplanting tiny corals cultivated in nurseries onto damaged reefs, according to the BBC. This process can be tedious and expensive, yet just a few reefs at risk are being tended to. 

Foster, however, is driving efforts to employ new technology and save the polyps. She designed molded bases shaped like flat discs fitted with grooves and a handle that aims to scale coral reef restoration

The marine biologist established a startup called Coral Maker to develop this innovative technology made from limestone-type concrete.

The process includes grafting coral fragments into small plugs and inserting them into a molded base. These foundations are then placed in batches on the sea bed, Foster told BBC.

"We wanted it to be something we could mass produce at a reasonable price. And easy for a diver or a remotely-operated vehicle to deploy," said Foster. "We've deployed several different prototypes of our coral skeletons. And we've also tested this on four different species.”

It seems the species are growing well, and the results have been positive in Foster's research thus far. "We're bypassing several years of calcification growth to get to that base size.”

Robots to aid coral propagation

Coral Maker is partnering with Autodesk, a San Francisco-based engineering software firm, to hasten the developments and preserve the limited reefs.

Watch the video below to watch scientists explain the revival process:

The collaboration has resulted in training robots (cobots) using artificial intelligence to work alongside humans. The bots aim to help with coral propagation – mainly picking and placing the Fosters molded design.

Such tasks are better suited for robots as that machine’s arms can graft or glue coral fragments to the seed plugs as required by the process. Another robot will assist in placing the base through vision systems. AI will control the robots and enable the execution. 

Nic Carey, a senior principal research scientist at Autodesk, told the BBC: “Every piece of coral is different, even within the same species, so the robots need to recognize coral fragments and how to handle them. So far, they're very good at handling the variability in coral shapes."

Foster also noted the mold bases can be mass-produced at a reasonable price and are uncomplicated for divers to place them and even remotely-operated vehicles.

The project strives to deploy the robots to work in the next 12-18 months. However, the challenge is preventing damage caused by the wet and salty ocean environment to the corals and the electronics placed on them. 

Carey says, "We need to ensure we can shield the more vulnerable components.” 

"To stay ahead of the curve and enable coral reefs to survive a warming future requires a substantial investment of time, money, and human capital," says Cathie Page, AIMS scientist. "We are trying to solve one of the most complex ecological problems on the planet.”

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