Robot Divers Could Use Artificial Intelligence To Save Coral Reefs

Solomon Islands Reef viewed by diver

While scientists have succeeded at restoring some coral reefs, humans alone can’t save all the reefs that are dying across the globe, a NOAA reef restoration manager said this month. Even in the best of conditions, human divers can spend only three or four hours per day working under water, said Tom Moore, coral reef restoration program manager for the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration. And those best conditions are rare.

That’s not enough to halt the collapse of one of the planet’s most crucial ecosystems, Moore said at the EarthxOcean conference: half the world’s coral reefs have died and the rest are expected to perish in this century. That vanishing coral hosts 25 percent of the ocean’s biodiversity, Moore said, and supports fisheries that feed hundreds of millions of people and contribute billions of dollars to the global economy.

“We have to stop having coral biologists trying to stop this problem with PVC pipe and zip ties the way they’ve done it for a long time,” Moore said. “We have to challenge the assumption that coral-reef restoration has to be performed by snorkelers and scuba divers.”

Even if human divers improved their efficiency tenfold, it wouldn’t be enough to halt the collapse of reef ecosystems, he said.

“We need to harness the power of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence to allow us to work at the scales that will be necessary to truly address this global challenge. Those solutions will not be available overnight, but we need to start inventing them now so that they’re available when we need them, while at the same time working hard with the tools that we have available today to make the change that we can make and begin to stabilize the system.”

Moore has his eye on the underwater robotics technology used by the offshore oil and gas industry. It involves heavy equipment operating at great depths and would have to be modified, he said, to work closer to the surface with delicate corals.

Artificial intelligence is already at work sensing objects or animal species from undersea imagery.

“A lot of these pieces are out there but they’re not being focused in this particular way,” Moore said.

“This is why I believe all the tech exists to solve this problem, it’s literally just a matter of getting all the right people in the right place at the same time,” he said.

“As you can imagine, doing those on the reef is going to be really complicated. You’ve got to have an underwater robot that’s able to navigate in and around coral heads, make a decision using AI to kind of put something in one place or another. ”

To do that, NOAA may host competitions for innovators to propose coral restoration technologies.

“Those of us who have looked closely firmly believe that the tech exists to solve the problem,” Moore said. “The challenge is huge, the goal is audacious, but saving coral reefs might just help to save the world.”