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Beelike robots swarm to the rescue of coral reefs

Need to mend a coral reef? Robots to the rescue!

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration James Provost

POSSIBLY BECAUSE THEY don’t have much travel-brochure cachet, the coral reefs in the deep seas around Scotland haven’t attracted the same kinds of conservation efforts as their more diveable cousins. That’s unfortunate, because these are exactly the types of reefs that tend to get destroyed by ships trawling for deepwater fish. But while trawlers can thoroughly dismantle reefs, they don’t necessarily kill the remaining bits of coral—which is where marine biologist Lea-Anne Henry of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University comes in. She and her team (which includes a “swarm intelligence” mathematician) think they might be able to repair the reefs using robots trained to reattach broken coral the same way bees build hives. If all goes according to plan, the coralbots could start reconstructing their first test reef, in Belize, in fall 2014. Here’s how they’ll do it.


1. Thanks to Heriot-Watt’s strong undersea engineering program, the team already has a robot—Nessie IV—that might be able to do the job. However, it needs new appendages gentle enough to avoid crushing the coral. An Austrian engineering firm called FerRobotics is working on a “soft-fingered” model that should fill the bill.

2. If the robots started gluing starfish to the reef, that would be bad. So to make sure they can recognize coral, the team is showing them thousands of photos from uniform heights and multiple angles. The problem? Not enough of these photos exist. Henry has launched a Kickstarter campaign (which will run throughout the month of May) so that, among other things, her colleagues in Belize can take more.

3. Computer algorithms for bees’ hive-building have existed for decades. The scientists are modifying them to work better for reef building. They’re also using a swarm strategy called stigmergy, in which a marker (like a small block) is left behind with each piece of coral, to make sure the robots don’t try to pick up pieces that others have already attached.

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