Underwater robots tasked with saving coral reefs are being developed at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. The idea is to use underwater intelligent robots that repair damaged coral reefs. Over the last year, scientists have been developing swarm and vision algorithms and testing robotic platforms for their suitability as CoralBots.

Dubbed "coralbots", they are being designed to work in groups, in a similar manner to bees and ants. The team is still "training" the software that will control the bots to "recognise" corals and distinguish them from other sea objects. Corals are easily damaged by pollution and destructive fishing practices, and it takes decades for them to re-grow. They are colonies of tiny living organisms, most commonly found in warm shallow waters in the tropics. But the depths of the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Scotland are home to cold-water reefs. When they get damaged, scuba divers re-cement broken fragments, helping them re-grow - but it is tricky for divers to reach depths over 200m. Coralbots, the researchers hope, will be a lot more efficient, able to repair the reefs in days or weeks.

The team, which consists of a marine biologist, an artificial intelligence scientist, a roboticist, and a machine vision scientist, said it was trying to raise £2m to hold a first demonstration. The scientists said that if they got all the cash they needed, the bots could be embark on their first mission within a year. Initially, the robots would be adaptations of those already developed at the university's Ocean Systems Lab. They would be about a metre long, with built-in video, image-processing and simple manipulation tools, such as scoops and arms, and would operate in "swarms".

Swarming in nature is collective action of a large number of agents that are individually stupid but collectively can complete complex tasks. Besides insects, birds and fish also swarm, as well as the smallest and simplest micro-organisms, such as bacteria."Our key idea is that coral reef restoration could be achieved via swarm intelligence, which allows us to exploit co-operative behaviours we see from natural swarms of bees, termites and ants that build complex structures such as hives and nests," said marine biologist Lea-Anne Henry who is lead scientist on the project at Heriot-Watt. She said the robots would be intelligent enough to navigate and avoid obstacles.

"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," she said.

Corals in danger

A quarter of all marine life on the planet inhabits corals, according to the World Wildlife Fund.In coastal areas, they also provide an important barrier against natural disasters such as storms, hurricanes, and typhoons. There are fears that coral reefs may begin to disappear within 50 years. Besides destructive fishing practices, other contributing factors are careless tourism and carbon dioxide emissions that make seawater more acidic, leading to the death of key coral species.

Last week, the CoralBots team launched a global fundraising campaign through the US website www.kickstarter.com. Here, the public can view the CoralBots project and donate to its fundraising target of 107,000 USD. Funds will be used to add a manipulator arm to one of the autonomous robots at Heriot-Watt University (her name is Nessie), and configure Nessie with the programs they have been developing so she can perform her coralbot tasks in a public aquarium in Scotland. In just one week, the team has already raised 20,000 USD, but they must raise the full amount to receive the funds, with the campaign finishing on the 27th of May. Please visit the site to find out more.