Deep water reefs, like their tropical counterparts, nurture a vast diversity of the life that populates the world’s oceans. A quarter of all marine life, says the World Wildlife Fund, inhabits corals, yet these ecosystems are being steadily destroyed. Climate change and drag nets have wiped out vast swaths of coral around the world. The broken pieces of these reefs can, eventually, grow back into healthy reef ecosystems, but the process can take so long–several centuries in some cases–that those rich ecosystems are essentially lost.
Three-foot-long deep-sea robots may soon help rebuild the reefs in just a matter of weeks. Called “coralbots,” the experimental machines being developed by Scotland’s Heriot-Watt Ocean Systems Lab are being designed to use swarm behavior inspired by bees to identify shattered reef fragments, and collectively rebuild these complex coral structures by cementing them in place. Today, human divers complete this task, but it’s slow and expensive, barely making a dent in the problem. And the deepest reefs simply can’t be reached by anything other than a machine.
The researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland are now trying to raise $3.2 million to demonstrate the swarming technology with a group of robots that sport video cameras, image-processing software, and simple manipulation tools such as scoops and arms. If successful, the world’s deepest robotic construction crew could be deployed almost immediately after a hurricane or when trawling damages a reef.