Thursday, August 30, 2012

Robots with vision piece together damaged coral

The deep waters west of Scotland are characterized by the occurrence of large reef-forming corals that provide homes to thousands of animals. But Scottish corals are threatened by adverse impacts of bottom fishing that damages and kills large areas of reef.

At present, the only solution to the problem is to employ scuba divers to reassemble the coral fragments on the reef framework. However, the method has had only a limited success because the divers cannot spend long periods underwater nor reach depths of over 200 meters where some of the deep-sea coral grows.

Now, however, researchers at Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh, Scotland) are embarking on a project that will see the teams of scuba divers replaced by a swarm of intelligent robots.

The so-called "Coralbots" project is a collaborative effort led by Dr. Lea-Anne Henry from the School of Life Sciences in partnership with Professor David Corne from the School of Mathematical and Computer Science and Dr. Neil Robertson and Professor David Lane from the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

Their idea is to use the small autonomous robots to seek out coral fragments and re-cement them to the reef. To help them do just that, the computers on board the robots will distinguish the fragments from other objects in the sea through the use of object recognition software which is under development.

If the researchers can realize their goals, swarms of such robots could be instantaneously deployed after a hurricane or in a deep area known to be impacted by trawling, and rebuild a reef in days or weeks.

While it might seem pretty ambitious, the folks at Heriot-Watt have got plenty of experience in underwater robotics and signal and image processing. At the university's Ocean Systems Lab, they have previously developed obstacle avoidance and automatic video analysis algorithms, as well as autonomous docking and pipeline inspection systems.

The team of researchers working on the new project is supported by Heriot-Watt Crucible Funding which is specifically designed to kick-start ambitious interdisciplinary projects.

Reference: Underwater robots to 'repair' Scotland's coral reefs. BBC technology news.

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