Coral-counting robot to assist with reef restoration

Friday, 17 May, 2024

Coral-counting robot to assist with reef restoration

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have developed a robot to count and capture images of baby tank-grown corals destined for the Great Barrier Reef, saving thousands of hours of time. It has been created as part of the Coral Growout Robotic Assessment System (CGRAS) project — a collaboration involving the Australian Institute for Marine Science (AIMS), the Reef Restoration & Adaptation Program (RRAP) and the QUT Research Engineering Facility (REF).

According to QUT’s Dr Dorian Tsai, most coral restoration techniques are primarily focused on fragmenting existing corals — but this method is typically constrained to about 50 fragmented corals per origin or donor colony, limiting scalability.

“We’re aiming to mass-reproduce corals via sexual reproduction, where parent colonies can produce over a million corals each, which allows us to ensure the corals can diversify and adapt to changing environments, and has much better scalability,” Tsai said.

“The difficulty is that we have to then be able to grow and monitor these baby corals in order to keep the corals happy and healthy, which CGRAS aims to solve.”

The challenge, Tsai explained, is that when the corals are grown en masse inside tanks on flat tiles, the corals are tiny — about 1 mm in diameter. He noted, “There are hundreds of thousands of these corals, and it takes on average 45 minutes for a trained expert to count a single coral tile, which is 28 x 28 cm2. Eventually there will be over 9600 such tiles.”

To count these corals manually, over 7200 hours would have to be devoted to counting every week, which would be highly repetitive and end up costing around $500,000 per week in labour, or $6 million over a 12-week grow-out period.

“That’s why we’ve developed a robot prototype to capture images of the baby corals in the tanks as they are growing in a repeatable, precise and flexible manner,” Tsai said.

“We’re also leveraging state-of-the-art artificial intelligence algorithms to automatically detect and count these coral babies and track their growth over time.

“This will allow scientists to have a much clearer correlation analysis between their treatment strategies and coral growth, leading to higher coral survival rates, which is higher coral yield, which will allow RRAP to reach their large-scale deployment scenarios of over a million corals out to the Great Barrier Reef each year.”

As explained by REF Senior Research Engineer Riki Lamont, the current design of the robot prototype houses a high-resolution submersible camera with a macroscopic lens — basically a waterproof microscope — mounted at the end of a robotic arm. The arm is wrapped up to prevent corrosion in the saltwater environment that is the aquaculture facility, and the whole thing is mounted atop a mobile platform that moves manually and houses all of the computers.

While the ideal approach could be to build a fully autonomous robot that could drive itself through the aquaculture facility, Tsai said that was not a cost-effective or necessary solution.

“Moving the robot manually between tanks only costs a fraction of the time compared to imaging, interpreting the images and counting the corals,” he said.

“Furthermore, the costs, challenges and risks of a fully automated system for a still-developing coral conservation process are orders of magnitude more expensive than we currently have budget for.

“Instead, we aim to hit the sweet spot of what is achievable with a complement of robotics and humans together to maximise operational and developmental costs for coral yield.”

Tsai said CGRAS was actively deployed in the National Sea Simulator (SeaSim) at AIMS near Townsville early this year, and its next iteration will be deployed for the next coral spawning in December 2025. AIMS researchers will be the eventual operators of the technology, as part of their efforts to help the Great Barrier Reef better cope with the effects of climate change.

“Projects like CGRAS are essential parts of the technology toolkit needed to deliver scale in this work,” said AIMS’s Research Program Director of Reef Recovery, Adaptation and Restoration, Dr Line Bay.

“We clearly need strong emissions reduction to provide the best future for coral reefs. But with a fifth mass coral bleaching event since 2016 unfolding on the Reef, research into restoration and adaptation is also important.

“Projects like this will turbo-charge R&D into conservation aquaculture methods that aim to help the Reef cope with increasing temperatures.”

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