How cobots and AI are being used to revive coral reefs

In Western Australia, Coral Maker has partnered up with Autodesk to develop a system that uses collaborative robots (cobots) from Universal Robots to help revitalize the coral reefs of Australia.

The company’s founder Dr. Taryn Foster, dreams of scaling the operation to have a world-wide impact and bring color and life back to the sea.

How did it all start?

After a catastrophic coral bleaching event in her home country, Australia, coral biologist Dr. Taryn Foster started the company Coral Maker, and has since worked on rebuilding the reefs that 25% of all marine species depend on. To follow this dream of bringing back some of the coral reef that has been lost and the biodiversity that comes with it, she needed help.

To combat the destructive effects of climate change on coral reefs, Dr. Foster and her team at Coral Maker partnered up with technology firm Autodesk to create an innovative solution for reef rehabilitation using AI, vision systems, and cobots from Universal Robots. The project aims to harness the power of collaborative robots and artificial intelligence to accelerate coral propagation and restore fragile marine ecosystems.

Automating the propagation process

Automating the propagation process

The process of coral restoration involves transplanting tiny corals, cultivated in nurseries, onto damaged reef. This is done by grafting coral fragments into small plugs, that are then inserted into a molded stone base. However, the manual work is labor intensive, slow, and costly, and only a fraction of the reefs at risk are getting help, so Dr. Foster needed a way to automate the process.

The solution came through a partnership with Autodesk, which used their software and Design and Make Platform to train robots to pick up the tiny living corals and place them in the molds.

The use for collaborative robots

According to Dr. Foster, one of the biggest problems in coral reef restoration is that it’s hard to scale up, which would be necessary for it to have an impact at an ecosystem level.

The Great Barrier Reef is tens of millions of hectares in size, and right now reef restoration projects are only restoring about one hectare per year. The obstacle that restoration projects are facing is the cost of scaling up: “If we were to do this at the scale that we need to be, tens of millions of corals per year would need to be processed and propagated and picked and placed, and the cost becomes prohibitively expensive” explains Dr. Foster “To get to that scale, we need to automate the repetitive pick and place work and have people doing the many other complex tasks in the process.”

Dr. Foster explains that some of these tasks in coral propagation are fairly simple, where the coral is picked up and placed on a spot of glue, or the plug is placed onto a coral skeleton.

Corals in trayDr Yotto Koga, researcher at Autodesk

For Coral Maker, the need was for adaptive robotics that could work alongside humans, operate with precision, and recognize coral fragments, as each coral is different and needs to be handled with care. This was achieved by using Autodesk’s Design and Make platform, that coupled with AI and vision systems, trains the robots to locate, pick and place the corals.

“One of the main challenges is just bringing that cost down, so that we can scale it up” said Dr. Foster “I think the only way we're going to be able to do that is using automation and then specifically collaborative robots, because a lot of the work that we'll be doing will involve people working interactively with robots.”

Senior Principal Research Scientist at Autodesk, Nic Carey, added: “The ability to scale restoration efforts is crucial, which is where robots come in. Automation and robotics are often used for large-scale manufacturing and product processing, and if applied to coral restoration efforts, it could have a huge impact. We are not able to scale efforts to meet the needs of ecosystem scale restoration by doing these repetitive tasks manually, so partnering with robots enables marine biologists to focus on more complex tasks that cannot be automated. Robotics also ensures that we can keep production running around the clock and outside of working hours to meet the need for larger scale efforts.”

Learn more about Coral Maker

Learn more about Coral Maker

If you want to know more about Coral Maker and their efforts to restore the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem, you can visit their website here.

Want to help? Then click the button and adopt a coral as part of their newly launched Adopt Coral Program.

Adopt Coral Program
Universal Robots

We believe that collaborative robotic technology can be used to benefit all aspects of task-based businesses – no matter what their size.

We believe that the latest collaborative robot technology should be available to all businesses. The nominal investment cost is quickly recovered as our robotic arms have an average payback period of just six months.

Local Office
  • Universal Robots USA, Inc
  • 27175 Haggerty Road, Suite 160
  • 48377 Novi, MI
Contact us: +1 844-462-6268
Contact us: + 1-844-GO-COBOT