Coral-bots: teams of robots that repair coral reefs

April 15, 2013 - via Kickstarter

Coral reefs support half a billion human lives, but are increasingly damaged and dying; we want to build robots that repair them!

        Kickstarter Coralbot Project
        Launched: Apr 15, 2013
        Funding ends: May 27, 2013
Coral reefs support over 500 million people across the globe. But reefs are being damaged on a global scale by storms, destructive fishing, ship groundings and careless tourists. It can take many years to decades for them to heal. We can speed up the process by using scuba divers that re-attach healthy pieces of coral back onto the reef like these pictures show from the "Fragments of Hope Coral Nursery in Belize" (photos by Lisa Carne). But this is very time consuming and mostly conducted by volunteers. Also, this method cannot be used to repair reefs in deeper waters because of depth limits to humans diving.

The answer: ‘coralbots’.

Coral-bots are a team of robots that intelligently navigate across a damaged coral reef, transplanting pieces of healthy corals along the way. The big job of developing and testing the robots at sea has already been done. All that remains is to embed the robots with computer vision to “see” healthy bits of coral, and configure appropriate manipulator arms for each robot to pick up and put down the pieces in the right spots. Kickstarter funds will let us purchase and assemble this kit, and allow us to conduct our first live demonstration of the robot team on a coral reef in a public aquarium. This will provide a conservation solution that paves the way for coral reef restoration across the globe.

Here are some examples of autonomous underwater vehicles (i.e underwater robots) that have been developed by the Ocean Systems Laboratory (part of the coralbots project team) for purposes such as monitoring of underwater pipelines.

The image immediately above, 'Nessie 4' is the platform we intend to adapt for the first missions to repair coral reefs in Belize, and for demonstrations prior to that in public aquaria. This platform is easily equipped with onboard camera, computing, and flexible arms and grippers. A prototype first coralbot design can be seen in the main image that accompanies our kickstarter presence.

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. See here for a basic tutorial on swarm intelligence:

Borrowing ideas from swarm intelligence, we can build on state of the art expertise in each of coral biology (Lea-Anne Henry), autonomous underwater robots technology (David Lane runs the Ocean Systems Laboratory at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and Dick Blidberg runs the Autonomous Undersea Systems Institute in New Hampshire), swarm intelligence (David Corne), and video/image processing (Neil Robertson – giving coralbots the ability to distinguish coral and understand the other key things in its environment).

With $107,000, in six months – with your help – we can demonstrate this technology in public with two specially adapted robots.

Every extra $$ will extend the number of public demonstrations, bringing us closer to our ultimate goal of increasing the team size to eight robots and using them on coral reefs around the globe.

As you may imagine, it certainly doesn’t stop there. The concept of swarm intelligence combined with what we know is possible in underwater robotics and computer vision, all make for a powerful combination that could contribute immensely to a swathe of issues in the marine environment. Help us in that longer term programme by first backing coral-bots!

Risks and challenges

Getting robots to do things autonomously is hard, and getting them to do it underwater is even harder. But the coralbots team is a highly motivated group of individuals whose collective track record of successful underwater robotics projects is very hard to beat. We already know the typical obstacles and how to surmount them. What we want to do in this project (and in the wider programme) is to change the way robots are used and perceived in marine science, and in environmental science as a whole: at present, robots are invariably used just to do monitoring and/or surveillance. But, modern artificial intelligence coupled with underwater experience can enable them to do so much more, and make a big difference to many global challenges. In this project that means we need to get the machine vision, arm/gripper control and associated navigation algorithms right, as well as tackle and solve various issues (that the team has solved in other porjects) of communication between robots and between an onshore, or on-surface team and the robots. We know we can do all of this with current tried and tested technology - the major risk is that the performance of the system we will be able to build with the kickstarter resources will be quite slow -- but one slow robot that takes several days to restore a small reef system is better than nothing at all (when that reef is too deep for scuba divers) and better than risking human lives. And, as we further improve the hardware and software technologies in parallel, we can speed this up by adding more robots (which is one of the benefits of the 'swarm intelligence' approach).

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Author:Coralbot team