The National Science Foundation has awarded a US$1.5 million/~€1.3 million grant to researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Syracuse University to open new avenues of robotic study of coral reefs.
The researchers will use the money to develop autonomous underwater vehicles capable of navigating complex environments and collecting data over long periods of time.
The team, led by WHOI computer scientist Yogesh Girdhar, aims to build a robot capable of navigating a reef ecosystem and measuring the biomass, biodiversity, and behavior of organisms living in or passing through a reef over extended periods of time.
Coral reefs support the health of the ocean and support large numbers of people worldwide. About one in four marine organisms relies on reefs at some point in their lifecycle, and hundreds of millions of people derive food, jobs, and protection from storms and erosion from reef ecosystems. A 2020 report on the status of coral reefs worldwide put the value of benefits reefs provide at $2.7 trillion/~€2.4 trillion per year.
Despite this, reefs are in decline around the world as a result of rising temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, and other threats. And scientists are scrambling to better understand complex reef ecosystems and devise ways to deal with a growing crisis.
According to Girdhar:
“The tools we have right now to study coral reefs are pretty primitive. The robots and the sensors we have at the moment can’t capture the spatial and temporal diversity of a reef at the same time. We want to amplify the capability of scientists in the field and the tools they’re using.”