Wednesday, 29 August 2012 12:08
August 29, 2012
Coral reefs may only live in 0.1 percent of the world's ocean, but they are home to 25 percent of all marine species. To aquatic tourists, they are source of beauty and wonder, a rainforest of the sea but, much like the arboreal version, they face a daily battle against outside forces to survive.
Reefs are easily damaged by pollution, ocean acidification and intensive fishing practices, while climate change and an increase in damaging nutrients in the water has seen an estimated 60 percent of the world's reefs under threat from human-related activities. Once damaged, reefs take years to repair themselves, but scientists at a university in Scotland are using robotic engineering resources to provide a quicker fix.
According to the BBC, swarm robotics could be used to help restore a reef to its former splendor. Scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland are developing software that can be used to allow underwater robots to recognize coral, with the intention being to program the "coralbots" to collectively swarm around affected reefs and make repairs where necessary.
Traditionally, scuba divers have been deployed to recement broken fragments of reef, especially in areas that have been targeted for their aquarium-friendly marine life. Known as aquaculture, these underwater gardeners can only operate in certain depths and robots could be programmed to dive deeper to perform a similar task, especially in areas that have been damaged during extreme oceanic weather conditions.
Swarm intelligence mimics the actions of small creatures, such as termites or ants, that need to be part of a collective to function and with coral reefs consisting of millions of tiny organisms, there is a distinct synergy in having artificial intelligence follow the same micro-rules to put things right.
The team at Heriot-Watt have been "training" the coralbots and while the technology is still in a very early stage, they are confident that the bots' first mission could be undertaken within a year.
"We are developing new intelligent object recognition routines, exploiting the data from hundreds of coral reef images, to enable each swarm member to recognise coral fragments and distinguish them from other materials and objects in the environment in real-time," said Lea-Anne Henry, lead scientist on the project. "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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