Marine biologist Taryn Foster pioneers a promising solution to expedite the coral reef restoration. Foster’s approach involves grafting coral fragments into small plugs. The plugs are then inserted into a specially designed base made from limestone-type concrete. This base, with its flat disc shape, grooves, and handle, is crafted to be cost-effective for mass production. It will be deployment-convenient for divers and remotely operated vehicles.

Corals are actually animals. The hard, colourful structures termed corals are made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps. Polyps are invertebrates, meaning that they do not have a backbone. They can be as small as a pinhead or as large as a foot in diameter.

Coral reefs thrive in the warm waters of tropical regions. These polyps extract calcium carbonate from the sea and, over time, create a hard outer shell. These accumulated shells serve as the foundation for the coral reefs associated with tropical seas.

Coral reefs may cover only a fraction of the ocean floor, approximately 0.2%. However, they support over 25% of marine species. This ecosystem provides habitats and nurseries for a myriad of marine life.

This underwater ecosystem has faced a series of threats in the recent years. Rising sea temperatures and increased ocean acidification have made coral reefs more vulnerable to diseases and mortality. When corals are stressed, they expel the colourful algae that give them their vibrant hues, turning them white and fragile. This process is termed coral bleaching.

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network has issued a warning: a mere 1.5°C increase in water temperature could lead to the loss of 70% to 90% of the world’s coral reefs. Some scientists suggest that by 2070, coral reefs may vanish entirely.

Traditional methods of coral restoration often involve transplanting small corals grown in nurseries onto damaged reefs. Though effective, this process is slow and expensive. It can only assist a limited number of at-risk reefs. The challenge lies in finding innovative approaches to accelerate the recovery of these vital ecosystems.

Initial results from Taryn Foster’s experiments have shown promise. Various prototypes of coral skeletons have been successfully deployed. Testing has been conducted on four different coral species native to the Abrolhos Islands. What sets this method apart is its capacity to accelerate coral growth by bypassing several years of natural calcification needed to reach the same base size.

Foster has taken her commitment one step further by founding a start-up company named Coralmaker. The Coralmaker’s mission is to revolutionise coral reef restoration and preservation. To achieve this, Foster has formed a partnership with San Francisco-based engineering software firm Autodesk.

Autodesk integrates artificial intelligence (AI) into coral restoration efforts. Autodesk team has trained AI to control collaborative robots, known as cobots, which can work alongside humans in various tasks.

The key objective is to harness cobots for tasks inherently repetitive but essential in coral propagation. Such tasks include the delicate process of grafting or glueing coral fragments onto seed plugs. These actions are perfect candidates for robotic automation, as they require precision and patience.

One robotic arm is employed to graft or glue coral fragments onto seed plugs, while another takes charge of placing these prepared coral fragments into the specialised base.

Nic Carey, a senior principal research scientist at Autodesk, explains that each piece of coral is inherently unique, even within the same species. Therefore, the robots must possess the capability to recognise different coral fragments and adapt their handling techniques accordingly.

The next phase of the project involves transitioning the robotic coral restoration system out of the lab and into real-world environments. Taryn Foster anticipates that this transition will occur within the next 12-18 months.