Coral reefs are an incredibly important collective of organisms. By providing food, shelter and a myriad of other services for an estimated quarter of underwater life, they act as the backbone of several marine ecosystems. If their weighty ecological role does not convince you of their importance, consider that reefs also act as natural buffering systems against the impact of storms on shorelines. As well, coral reefs function as very compelling tourist attractions feeding millions of jobs worldwide.
As such, the ongoing destruction and degradation of these reefs is quite alarming. The causes of decline are completely anthropogenic and range from climate change to over-fishing to tourism (how ironic). While, coral reefs are able to repair damaged sections, this regeneration can take from 5 years to centuries. This relatively long time frame can be reduced through the use of transplantation, a process in which coral fragments are reattached onto the main reef structure. Typically, this process is carried-out by volunteer scuba divers. Unfortunately, there are several constraints resulting from the use of a human repair team with depth of the dive being a major one.
To circumvent the limitations of this current method of transplantation, an interdisciplinary team at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has developed robots to be used in the repair of coral reefs. Around one meter long, and outfitted with simple tools and a video camera, ‘coralbots’ are an exciting example of the use of interdisciplinary science to solve a large problem. Mimicking the idea of ‘swarm mentality’ from insects such as ants and termites, the repair of a coral reef by these robots would be an example of an ‘emergent property’. The performance of a simple, repetitive action by each coralbot should result in the rapid (days to weeks) repair of the reef through transplantation. Simply put, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Coralbots have not yet been employed for reef repair, with the robots still being ‘trained’ to recognize coral fragments.
There are several caveats related to the use of coralbots stemming from limitations inherent in the process of transplantation. While transplantation is a reef-management tool that has often been discussed as well as executed, it has not been adequately studied. Transplantation may not be the best method of reef-repair in some situations, with factors such as coral species dictating its effectiveness. Coralbots are an exciting example of what collaboration between scientific disciplines can bring, but research must be conducted to ensure that this technology is being used to its fullest potential.