Could swarms of robots help repair coral reefs threatened by bottom-trolling fishing methods?
The commercial fishing method known as bottom trawling devastates coral reefs. The nets are weighted and when they sink to the bottom of the seafloor, they can smash into coral branches and break them off.
Potentially coming to their rescue are superheros of unlikely proportions: swarms of tiny, autonomous, coral-fixing robots.
"Swarms of robots could be instantaneously deployed after a hurricane or in a deep area known to be impacted by trawling, and rebuild the reef in days to weeks, instead of years to centuries," said Dr. Lea-Anne Henry of the School of Life Sciences was lead in a university news release.
At the moment, divers -- not robots -- are sometimes sent down to a reef to help repair it. If the broken pieces can be retrieved in time, they can be grafted back onto the reef and resume growing. But scuba divers are limited by how long they can remain underwater and how deep they can dive.
Henry and her colleagues from Scotland's Heriot Watt University think "coralbots" would work better. Like a swarm of social insects working together, the bots could be sent down to the reef to repair the damage. The idea is to program the coralbots with set of pre-programmed codes, or "micro-rules," to differentiate broken coral branches from seafloor debris. The machines would collaborate to retrieve the pieces and cement them back onto the reef.
While this sounds like a tall order to fill, never underestimate the power of the The Swarm. If they can play the James Bond theme song, I figure coral-reef repair can't be too far behind.
The research may still still be in its early stages, but what an excellent idea: put the swarm to work.
© 2012 Discovery Channel