Robots could help restore coral reefs in “ever narrowing window of time left”

Manufacturing and technology industries must rally around to help mass produce corals to repopulate reefs on a huge scale, according to a team of Californian researchers.

Coral reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, and support about a quarter of all marine life, but they are under serious threat. The burning of fossil fuels, dumping of toxic waste, leaching of toxic chemicals from suncream and other consumer products, along with trawling are among many factors contributing to their destruction. Urgent action is needed to rapidly restore them in conjunction with doing everything we can to prevent their destruction in the first place.

The researchers say the single biggest problem in current coral reef restoration practices is scalability. This means that ecologically meaningful restoration has so far been impossible. Researchers from the restoration company Coral Maker state that although corals are being grown for reproduction or propagation, “both of these techniques are currently extremely labour intensive, and therefore slow and expensive, which has prevented them from being applied at the reef scale.”

Coral biologist and founder Taryn Foster says with the help of a robot assembly line, they could manufacture 1 million coral skeletons each year to restore destroyed or declining reefs. Their current annual production rates are about 25,000.

Although still in its infancy, the new process starts with a specially designed dome-shaped “coral” skeleton, produced using dry-casting – a traditional masonry manufacturing technique – that could potentially produce around 4,000 stone coral skeletons daily. The next step on the production line involves a robotic arm inserting seed plugs with live coral fragments into the skeleton, which can then be placed onto a reef system to mature.

With an automated process, it would eliminate the need for labour intensive manual tasks and speed up the seeding process.

Even if warming is capped at 1.5°C, coral cover is still projected to decline by 70-90% compared to pre-industrial coral cover, in the best-case scenario. It is therefore essential that remedial solutions are found in conjunction with rigorous efforts to prevent the root causes of their destruction.

Coral Maker went on to say that to produce corals at the scale needed, it is essential to partner with industries that have decades of experience in mass production. “Multidisciplinary thinking and cross-industry collaboration are going to be critical to producing solutions in the ever narrowing window of time left to save coral reefs.”



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