July 12, 2018

How a Tiny Robot Could Help Save Coral Reefs

News Source: Daily Beast

Author(s): Nicole Wetsman

Researching coral reefs is often low-tech: scuba tanks, waterproof paper, pencils, spreadsheets.

“Underwater, we’re very practical,” Emily Darling, a marine ecologist and conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, told The Daily Beast. “But coral reef scientists also have to be cutting edge. Now, with all the threats to reefs, we have to work faster and smarter.”

Coral reefs are critical to the health of ocean ecosystems, and provide food, protection from storms, and economic resources to humans. They’re also extremely vulnerable: Estimates suggest that they could die off completely by 2050.

In the race to protect what they can, researchers like Darling are developing innovative hardware and software technologies to augment the painstaking work of biologists and conservationists.

Darling is working on a project with the Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund to develop software that will help coral researchers more efficiently collect, analyze, and share their data. “We’re using the tools provided by Silicon Valley to meet the needs of scientists on the ground,” she told the Daily Beast.

The project  is called the Marine Ecological Research Management Aid, or MERMAID. It’s an online and offline app that lets scientists easily input data that they would otherwise have to enter by hand into a spreadsheet. “This lets scientists, at the click of a button, download a clean datasheet to use for analysis and reporting," Darling said.

It will also include a dashboard showing all of the locations around the world where scientists have input data into the program—researchers will have the option to include just their contact information and no data, a summary of their data, even their complete data.

That range of options is key, to support and incentivize collaboration in the race to save the coral reefs from dying, Darling said.. It also lets scientists across the world follow and identify which interventions that are working. “It saves scientist time, so that they can report whether their conservation efforts are making a difference,” she said.

While MERMAID will be customizable to the needs of individual scientists, it has enough standardization to make it easier to conduct large-scale analysis of multiple projects at once. That process normally requires exhaustive data cleaning—which can take years.  “Myself and some other colleagues have been leading a global synthesis, and it took three years to compile the data,” Darling said. “That’s time the reefs do not have.”

But with MERMAID, Darling said, all the data will already be in the same architecture, and with the same metadata.

Right now, testers in Fiji, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea are piloting the software. Darling said that they’re hoping to launch the beta version of MERMAID by the end of July.

“When we talk to potential users, people want this to be done now. They wish they had it ten years ago,” she said.

On the Great Barrier Reef, scientists are building hardware to directly address challenges faced by the world’s largest reef.

The RangerBot, for example, is an autonomous underwater robot designed to identify and kill Crown-of-Thorns starfish, which prey on coral, and monitor thinks like coral bleaching and water quality. The robot has a powerful camera system, and employs artificial intelligence to navigate the complex environment of a coral reef, as well as recognize and identify its starfish targets.

“It is based on the latest in robot vision and artificial intelligence approaches,” wrote Matthew Dunbabin, a professor of electrical engineering and robotics at Queensland University of Technology, who developed the robot, in an email to The Daily Beast. Developed in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the RangerBot project received $750,000 in funding through the Google Impact Challenge Australia in 2016.

Using RangerBots to patrol the reef would be cheaper than human divers, and would traverse more of the reef more quickly and efficiently. The robots are currently undergoing field-testing trials in the Great Barrier Reef.

While the system was originally built for specific tasks on the Great Barrier Reef, it can be easily adjusted to meet the monitoring and management needs of other reef systems across the world. “The systems software architecture has been developed with task expansion in mind,” Dunbabin said. “The system can be easily upgraded with new detection modules, similar to the way plugins in apps work, without the need to change hardware.”

Also in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Emma Prime, a polymer researcher with Deakin University, is developing an ultrathin film to shield coral from the sun, staving off light to reduce bleaching. The biodegradable film is 50,000 times thinner than a human hair and, in tests, reduced light penetration by 30 percent.

“The next phases will involve further testing of the film in a range of environments, and at increasing scale, to validate the film works as expected,” Prime wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.

Dozens of other projects—ranging from efforts to build digital, three dimensional models of reefs to catalogue their decline, to using low-voltage electrical currents to stimulate coral growth—are underway around the world, as well. “Coral reefs are in crisis, and we need to have all options available,” said Darling.

At the end of the day, what’s needed to save coral reefs is well known by conservation scientists: fish them less, work to improve water quality, reduce carbon emissions that lead to heat shock and ocean acidification, manage tourism. But that isn’t consistent with new innovation. Darling said. “As long as technology is in line with those things we know, we should bring it to the table.”