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Coral reefs are not just beautiful to look at, but also, extremely useful. Considered the marine equivalent of tropical rainforests, they cover only 2% of the ocean bottom but harbor almost 25% of all marine life. However, like numerous other species, this amazing ecosystem that has been around for five hundred million years is in danger of being eradicated completely, if something is not done soon.
The reason for the destruction is two-fold - Rising sea and carbon dioxide levels caused by global warming, as well as, human activities especially fishing methods like bottom trawling. While not much can be done about the former until there is an overall reversal, the loss caused by the latter, can be mitigated.
Bottom trawling involves dropping nets to the ocean bed and then dragging them up when filled with fish. This action scrapes the floor causing the coral branches to break from the reefs. While that is very disheartening, the good news is that if these branches are found quickly and attached back on, they can be saved. Currently, that work is being performed by volunteer scuba divers, who are not only limited in the amount of time they can stay underwater, but also, how deep they can go in.
But such is not the case for Coralbots - The cleverly designed robots that can constantly scout the floor and seek out broken branches. Programmed to be able to distinguish between other debris and the coral, the bots are designed such that they work together in groups, similar to bees or wasps, in deftly cementing back the broken coral to the reef.
The advantage to having these tiny bots work in clusters as opposed to having a few large ones scouting the area solo, is that if one or more get destroyed, (the chances of which are pretty high), another can simply take its place. In addition, because they are not very sophisticated, the cost of losing one is not as prohibitive as would be the case with a larger, smarter bot.
The brainchild of researchers from Scotland's Heriot Watt University, the Coralbots are currently in the final phase of testing. Once ready, the researchers hope to get funding to build hundreds of them and deploy them in full force in the waters off Scotland and then hopefully in oceans across the world, alleviating at lease one of the many problems caused by human carelessness.
Though they have the look and feel of plants, corals belong to the sessile category of animals that are permanently attached to an area and are therefore immobile. Incapable of making their own food, they use their tiny tentacle-like arms to capture it from the surrounding water and sweep it into their almost invisible mouths. Also each 'coral' is not a single organism, but made up of thousands of polyps no bigger than a nickel, all of which secrete the limestone that attaches to a rock or ocean bed and keeps them in place.
Resources: Gizmag.com, wired.co.uk, oceanservice.noaa.gov