New Coral Reef Mapping Robots
The Mindorobots initiative recently completed mapping a coral reef in Udalo, Mindoro using robots. The project is an initiative by students at the University of Hong Kong to map coral reefs autonomously. The robots autonomously photograph the reef and generate maps which are used to track coral conservation and greatly reduce the cost and effort of conserving coral reefs - thus helping local communities protect their livelihood better. The technology involves hacking drones and lasers and fitting them onto a locally built bamboo boat.
The project was started in April by two students, Sidhant Gupta and Rohak Singhal along with prominent environmentalist Cesar Harada to see if it was possible to reduce the time and cost of mapping and conserving Coral Reefs by using robots instead of hiring divers. Currently, divers swim in the water with a large PVC quadrat and manually place it on the ocean floor, before photographing it. They then repeat this process thousands of times to map the entire ocean bed for a reef. Hence, mapping just one reef takes a very long time and is very expensive. This project was started to build open source robots which can be used to map these reefs using a laser quadrat and autonomous boat robot instead of divers. The idea is that local communities can monitor their reefs themselves with the robot and hence decide which parts to fish in, or which sections to open to tourists etc.
Over the 8 month project, 4 robot prototypes were built and tested. The last and most successful one was used in Udalo and was build using local bamboo. The study found that the reef in Udalo has already started to see degradation. Small sections of the reef, specially close to the shore are already dead and a number of other sections are seeing small amounts of bleaching. Coral bleaching is a sign that the reef is unhealthy and points to potential harm to the reef in the future. Bleaching takes place because the water warms up and is a direct result of global warming and climate change. Philippines, the "Amazon of the Sea" has seen considerable coral bleaching over the past few years and coral conservation is essential to preserving marine based economies in the country.
The project is a leap forward in coral mapping technology and has reduced the cost and time associated with reef conservation significantly. The mission of the project is now to ensure that more communities can assemble their own bots and start to monitor and conserve their own reefs as well.