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Coral-Repairing Robots Take a Step Closer To Reality

samzenpus posted about a year and a half ago | from the we-can-rebuild-it dept.

Earth 39

Zothecula writes "Since humans are responsible for much of the damage to coral reefs, it makes sense that we should try and help repair them. That's exactly what a team from the Herriot-Watt University's Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology is attempting to do with the development of underwater "coralbots." Now anyone can add their support to this worthy effort with the launch of a Kickstarter campaign that will help make the robots a reality."

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the plan (2)

phantomfive (622387) | about a year and a half ago | (#43480197)

The plan is to coast along deep parts of the ocean (that are hard for human divers to reach) and transplant healthy coral into places where there is a lot of damaged coral.

Pissing into the wind (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43480639)

What is the point? Have any other underlying reasons for the coral dying been addressed (Re:GW)? No! They are just pissing into the wind...

It's always the same story. (5, Funny)

lxs (131946) | about a year and a half ago | (#43480201)

The humans make a mess and the robots have to clean it up.
This morning my Roomba was giving me a weird look.
They are not going to take this much longer.

Re:It's always the same story. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43480235)

Don't worry, in a few years we should have robots capable of creating pretty messes for humans to clean up...

Worth it? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43480211)

Researching and building those robots will consume energy. It might be worth a thought if they will ever save more coral than they (indirectly) destroy.

Great. (2)

jtownatpunk.net (245670) | about a year and a half ago | (#43480259)

Now there will be debates about the advantages of organic coral over robotically engineered coral.

Re:Great. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43481415)

Thats fine. I was sort of suspecting someone show up and say that since there is no profit in repairing coral reefs it will never take off, just like there is in every story about Mars.

Re:Great. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43482955)

There is actually tons of profit to be made off reef repair and artificial reefs.

those reefs are fish nurseries, and are great forages for game fish.
The american market is already slowly moving away from net catch to farm raising of fish, and only high value species (marlin, grouper, Mahi, etc) are fished wild, and thats by hook. These artificial reefs give forage for those high value species.

Re:Great. (1)

JeanCroix (99825) | about a year and a half ago | (#43481743)

Just as long as we pass laws to make sure all robotically engineered coral is labeled as such.

For $5k (3, Funny)

kid_wonder (21480) | about a year and a half ago | (#43480261)

you get to name a robot

i'm thinking "coral roborts"

or will that make the robot claim to faith-heal the reefs and then create a kickstarter page of its own to raise money for itself?

Resilient (4, Interesting)

Troed (102527) | about a year and a half ago | (#43480285)

Coral reefs mostly bleach because of cooling and warming - the causes of which are natural changes in ocean circulation. The reefs are also much more resilient than we thought:

New research shows that an isolated reef off the northwest coast of Australia that was severely damaged by a period of warming in 1998 has regenerated in a very short time to become nearly as healthy as it was before. What surprises scientists, though, is that the reef regenerated by itself, found a study published Thursday in the journal Science

http://science.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/04/17603478-isolated-coral-reef-surprises-scientists-by-healing-itself?lite [nbcnews.com]

Re:Resilient (1)

Attila Dimedici (1036002) | about a year and a half ago | (#43481733)

That was what I was coming to post. The fact that that study suggested that the best way to help a coral reef recover is to leave it alone.

But not for long (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43483619)

The ability for reefs to regenerate means nothing.
In the long term the oceans are going to warm and become more acidic - the periods during which corals may regenerate will eventually disappear.
The reefs are gonna die, and even if we somehow stopped dumping CO2 into the oceans right now it won't save them.
In 30-40 years it's game over, they'' be dead.

Re:But not for long (2)

Troed (102527) | about a year and a half ago | (#43484399)

There's no scientific data that supports your opinion. The warming of the oceans is miniscule compared to seasonal variations - and corals have existed when the oceans have been much much warmer than today. The same goes for pH-levels - the global variance is an order of magnitude larger than the changes we believe we've seen over the last few hundred years (there's an issue with instrument calibration and number of significant digits far back).

The reefs are in no danger from either cooling or warming. They rebuild quickly, and have done so over many ice age cycles (where the last warm period was much warmer than ours today).

Neat! Good luck to them, seems unrealistic (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43480321)

Having spent the better part of four years developing robots to do autonomous tasks which were like this in a lot of ways (check out http://www.robosub.org for the AUVSI foundations' robotics competition), I have to say the timelines, budget, and functionality they're aiming for seem pretty unrealistic.

They also seem to be pretty light on the details! The robot they presented looks like it's positively buoyant with passive roll control based on having the top have floats, and needs active depth control. This is fine for extremely short missions, but the robot I worked on with a nearly neutrally buoyant setup (it floated up ~1 foot per minute) still only had a runtime of about 6 hours, 3 hours if it was trying to do useful work (drive around, image recognician, etc). Admittedly our robot used a lot more sensors and had a 6-thruster system, but still, that was running on 26Amp-hours at 28V nominal, and I can hardly imagine that the robots they're planning on building in "swarm quantities" will have that kind of punch so the run times will likely be similar. And getting a bunch of robots to collectively do useful work in under 3 hours seems unlikely.

How are their swarms intercommunicating? RF is extremely limited in distance underwater (you can dump in more power to get it to go futher, but this reduces the runtime), acoustic coupling has almost no throughput and doesn't work well in swarms (interference gets bad fast), and shooting blue-green lasers requires knowledge of where you're shooting (so not terribly useful in a swarm context). Flashing bright lights would also be stupidly low bandwidth as well as energy intensive. And all of these solutions have the terrible downside that they're pretty instrusive when put right next to sea creatures of almost any type.

How are they planning on grabbing "easily broken-off" pieces of coral? Visual? That requires massive amounts of processing power to get right, and also brilliant coders, but even the best and brightest in the industry are still throwing computing clusters in the back of trucks at problems like this. Mixing the unpredictability of visual identification with the idea of great big swarms of robots also seems likely to be disasterous. And speaking from YEAAARS of experience, caustics ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caustic_%28optics%29 ) along with shifting light due to things like cloud cover will quickly destroy any and all notion of "normalcy" in your input data. We ran in a great big neutral buoyancy tank and we were friggin' great at identifying everything, the moment the sun and coulds and wind got involved we had about 10,000,000 recovery states which would try to "confirm" input, and frequently gave up before they crossed a threshold of certainty.

What are their plans to prevent their swarms from smashing the coral? What happens when one robot gets snagged? Or if they're working at depth and their glass sphere cracks and it catastrophically implodes, destroying a bunch of coral?

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a great research project for some phd student to talk very highly about, but the idea of dumping in money to the effort seems foolish without any real concrete details on the process. Some of them they could hand-wave ("we have a great vision guy!" "the final version will use a ballast!"), but I would want to see up-front descriptions of everything else. Kickstarter is something where I expect you to have finished the "research" and to be ready to "develop". You may make mistakes which provoke more research, but I want a plan, not a hope!

link? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43480339)

Why is there no link to the Kickstarter?

Research in to warmth resistant coral (4, Interesting)

Neil Boekend (1854906) | about a year and a half ago | (#43480377)

Is there any research into coral that can stand the heat? "Natural" coral dies because it bleaches.
It bleaches because it kicks the algae out that give it it's color
It kicks out the algae because they are producing to much food for the polyps to survive.
The algae produce to much food because the water temperature rises.

Now that seems to me to be a chain of events we can influence a couple of different things in:
We could breed polyps that don't kick all the algae out, just enough to lower the food influx to a reasonable level.
We could breed algae to stabilize their production, despite of heat.
We could breed polyps that survive a higher food input.

Keeping the water cool may be the best long term solution, but it isn't the only one and it may be to long term. The water temperature will probably keep rising for years, even if we stop all sources for the rise now (which we can't realistically).

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

JustNiz (692889) | about a year and a half ago | (#43482063)

Finding/engineering a replacement is not even close to the same as protecting what nature put there, so isn't a solution.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

kwbauer (1677400) | about a year and a half ago | (#43482489)

If we are "naturally" produced instead of "godmade" then isn't anything we make and put there, by definition, natural and, therefore, also what nature put there.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

JustNiz (692889) | about a year and a half ago | (#43483481)

No.
a) Humans are not naturally produced. We've got rid of natual selection centuries ago.

b) What we're doing to the environment is distinctly unnatural.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (2)

kwbauer (1677400) | about a year and a half ago | (#43484591)

I am having a difficult time understanding whether you are part of the intelligent design or God created it mindset or have some twisted sense of evolution. You say humans are not naturally produced but you aren't offering any evidence that new humans are being produced other than via genetic combination after sexual pairing (or laboratory reproductions thereof). Are you claiming that humans are actually being produced in the factories of some advanced race? I know Frank Herbert had one of his civilizations using human wombs as factories but that is somewhat unrelated to this topic.

My understanding is that our understanding of natural selection being the mechanism behind evolution was theorized less than two centuries ago so how could we have possibly rid ourselves of that notion before we ever thought of it?

As for part b of your reply. You make the claim that what humans are doing to the environment is unnatural. What proof do you have that humans are not a product of nature? I asked how nature is capable of producing something not part of nature. Your "answer" seems to be making the claim that humans weren't produced by nature. If that is truly your position please state it clearly.

In the meantime, I am still interested in response to the question I asked.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

JustNiz (692889) | about a year and a half ago | (#43485765)

>> I am having a difficult time understanding whether you are part of the intelligent design or God created it mindset or have some twisted sense of evolution.

None of the above, and that's irrelevant to the argument anyway.

>> You say humans are not naturally produced but you aren't offering any evidence that new humans are being produced other than via genetic combination after sexual pairing (or laboratory reproductions thereof).

Part of natural production is evolution, and an important part of that is natural selection. We have nearly eliminated natural selection in humans by a process that began centuries ago, eliminating all our predators, significantly minimizing most other natural risks to ourselves and artifically controlling fertility, and making food (at least in the 1st world) artificially cheap and abundant. Consequently (at least 1st world) humanity is no longer developing under the same rules as every other living organism (i.e. mother nature) so therefore we are no longer 'natural'. Actually by getting rid of natural selection, and therefore allowing bad genes to be artifically succesful in proflagation, many would argue humanity as a species is no longer physically evolving, rather we are devolving as a direct result. So In short, no we aren't natural and haven't been for a long time.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

kwbauer (1677400) | about a year and a half ago | (#43486985)

So, you are claiming that nature created something unnatural. What other species did nature allow to evolve to the point that they are no longer "natural?"

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

JustNiz (692889) | about a year and a half ago | (#43487675)

Nope, I'm claiming that at some earlier point man may have had legitimate claim to being considered natural but we have changed/developed/controlled our species and its environment far beyond that point. Basically, we as a species have consciously chosen a path that irrevocably removes ourselves from ever being classified as ''natural' by explicitly taking control of most aspects of our progenisis, surivival and death away from mother nature, and instead making them our own responsibility.

To my knowledge no other species is even capable of the thought processes necessary to have done anything even remotely similar.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

kwbauer (1677400) | about a year and a half ago | (#43488911)

Exactly. You are claiming that nature produced something unnatural. You claim that homo sapiens are a product of the natural forces of evolution and then you claim that homo sapiens are not natural. You cannot have it both ways.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

JustNiz (692889) | about a year and a half ago | (#43499043)

No you're putting words in my mouth.
I'm claiming that nature produced us as something natural however we later made ourselves unnatural by circumventing evolution. Its a simple concept why are you continuing to struggle with understanding it?

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

a1cypher (619776) | about a year and a half ago | (#43485465)

Also the definition of "natural" seems up in the air. Humans naturally evolved on the earth, and have naturally adapted the use of tools, and farming, and using the natural resources available to us. What makes us any less natural than any other animal? Also the idea that humans are no longer subject to natural selection seems a bit silly to me. There are plenty of things that influence a humans ability to reproduce. Children born with crippling disease often dont go on to reproduce, therefore evolution of humanity selects against crippling disease.

The goal of human existence as a whole should not be to leave no trace, but to improve the world and universe. Granted, this does not mean that we should rape and pillage mother nature for her resources, but the goal should not be to put the entire planet on "pause", preventing any further change or adaptation, but to try and live harmoniously with whats here. If that means attempting to repair corral reefs, or even genetic engineering change in those reefs, then whose to say that is wrong? The only risk is that if we do something like engineer a better algae, we risk missing subtle properties of the current algae for behaving as it does that could have even worse effects somewhere else in the ecosystem.

Also, if reef A dies due to whatever factor, does another area in the ocean become more compatible for supporting a reef? Perhaps the corral migrate on their own over long periods of time. Maybe the solution isnt to attempt and fix existing reefs, but to spawn entirely new ones in water that was formerly too cold to support a reef.
 

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

JustNiz (692889) | about a year and a half ago | (#43485813)

>> The goal of human existence as a whole should not be to leave no trace, but to improve the world and universe.

You speak as if this is self-evident but really the basis of your argument is just your own opinion.

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

a1cypher (619776) | about a year and a half ago | (#43486701)

I suppose it is opinion. It just doesn't make any sense to me that our purpose is to have no impact on the universe. Not only my quoted above statement an opinion, it is also ambiguous as there is no great consensus on what it means to "improve" the world and universe. Just because the basis of my argument is an ambiguous opinion doesn't mean that my argument should carry no weight.

In my opinion, an engineered reef is better than a dead one. So it makes sense to try provided that we can have some reasonable assurance that any human engineered reef isnt going take over the entire ocean or squeeze out native reefs (or other species for that matter). This is not a trivial problem, but I don't think its worth abandoning all-together simply because anything we make is not "natural".

Re:Research in to warmth resistant coral (1)

JustNiz (692889) | about a year and a half ago | (#43487815)

>> In my opinion, an engineered reef is better than a dead one

Perhaps but as you correctly identified, there are serious risks. History has proven time and again that whenever humans mess with a natural environment (even with the best intentions) we often if not usually end up making a worse mess.

That is only one reason why I'd MUCH rather prevent further destruction directly rather than adopt the bizarrely popular psuedo-pragmatic approach that its OK to continue destruction in the name of 'progress' (translation: greed) then just make some ill-conceived effort to band-aid over the collateral damage later. For example how can you later fix the extinction of a species?.

BP, hardy har! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43480449)

I think it's hilarious that the bot in the photo has a BP sticker on the side of it. Are they trying to make up for their awful track record of ocean habitat destruction?

Re:BP, hardy har! (2)

hammeraxe (1635169) | about a year and a half ago | (#43480559)

It's a project that students are likely to be involved with and BP is interested in developing people with the skills they require (i.e. subsea engineering).

Spend the money keeping People Away (1)

fygment (444210) | about a year and a half ago | (#43482041)

Rather than trying to play god, why not just keep people away from the reefs? That will eliminate one problem: physical damage, overfishing, etc.

Use the money to address root causes of environmental damage; fund alternative energy sources, alternatives to dangerous chemicals used in industry because they are cheaper, raising the profile of environmental issues in the public eye.

Robot repair of reefs will only let people keep on doing what they are doing. It will hide the problem.

Re:Spend the money keeping People Away (1)

RobertLTux (260313) | about a year and a half ago | (#43482589)

or better yet start sinking the boats they are using to get there.

Corals have been around for a while (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43482075)

Corals have existed on the Earth and built reefs under every climate regime that has existed for the past 540 million years.
This includes the periods following the effects of huge asteroid impacts that extinguished much of life on earth. The idea that humans need to repair coral reefs using robot swarms is laughable.

Still too much acid in the water (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43482977)

Coral reefs are getting killed off by ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 sequestration which creates carbonic acid that dissolves coral calcium. Also, average temps are rising faster than coral polyps can adapt, which isn't helping. Repairing physical damage either by human or autonomous means does not address the global issue of too much CO2 in the air getting absorbed and creating acid, which lowers pH and causes a negative increase in alkalinity. Not to bash advancements in robotics, but the impact that they will bring to bear is negligible. Ocean chemistry is changing globally and cannot be negated by a few robots. If the intent is to do some minute point repairs on targeted reefs damaged by tourists, great, but don't try and call it 'saving' coral reefs. Coral that's untouched by human exploration is still dissolving away in water that's too acidic just the same as those frequented by tourists. Only significant greenhouse gas reductions and/or massive carbon capture and storage by humans on a global scale will be enough to significantly reduce ocean acidification enough to make a difference.

Fishing net weights that navigate over the reefs? (1)

BaronElectricPhase (725223) | about a year and a half ago | (#43491449)

Cool idea, but wouldn't it be better to make the
fishing nets intelligently navigate *over* the reefs to begin with?
Seems simple to me... put controlled fins on the weights?

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