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To the rescue: Underwater drone gives life to dying coral reefs

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Coral reefs cover only 0.1 percent of the ocean floor. Their importance to marine wildlife, however, is routinely underestimated. Could a student-designed underwater drone make the barren reefs bloom once more?

Text: Jens Persson

In spite of covering such a small portion of the ocean floor coral reefs support about 25 percent of all life in the seas. That number seems to now be dwindling fast. In past decades, these life-giving ecosystems have suffered at the hands of human development and exploitation.  At the current deterioration rate, caused by pollution and over-fishing, estimations suggest that 90 percent of coral reefs may have vanished by 2050. Two students from the Master's Programme in Advanced Product Design decided to try to reverse that presumed inevitability.

During a 10-week project, in collaboration with Husqvarna, the APD2 class was tasked with "exploring the potential for new sustainable product solutions for both professionals and citizens". Elias Thaddäus Pfuner and Mario Kapsalis decided not to go the expected route and design a product promoting "greener" lifestyles. Instead, they shifted their focus to helping nature directly in a more pro-active way, through the use of advanced technology. 

"We did a ton of research before we settled on the issue of coral reefs. At one point, early in the process, we were looking at underwater farming and then we stumbled upon coral farming. As we dug deeper and began to grasp the ecological significance of coral reefs we realized that this was an area where we could potentially make a real impact", says Elias Thaddäus Pfuner.

The Hawaiian connection 

As their initial research phase progressed they could soon identify a couple of bottlenecks in the way coral farming is done today. The transportation of the corals from the nursery site to the outplant site, and the monitoring of the corals once planted, were both areas where they thought they could help streamline the process.

To put some more meat on the bones before they started honing in on a tangible solution Elias and Mario reached out to a number of institutions that research and administer sea restoration. Alessandra Shea, who holds the position of National Coral Reef Management Fellow at the American organisation NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) soon became an indispensable resource. Based out of Hawaii, she oversees projects focused on coral bleaching and fisheries management.

NEMO Process Kopia

"It was fantastic to collaborate with an expert in the field, someone who grapples with these issues day in and day out. In Hawaii, she is working with coral reef restoration from the point of the latest scientific advances. For us, it was very helpful to learn what is required to be successful at coral restoration long-term", says Mario Kapsalis.

As Elias and Mario entered their ideation phase, where they try to come up with actual product concepts, they checked in with Alessandra along every step of the way to make sure that they were tackling the key issues in a realistic and purposeful way. In fact, they decided to build on current coral restoration processes used by NOAA, with the aim of advancing them to become more efficient, sustainable and large scale.

From crate to reef: A 360° system for coral restoration 

The solution they came up with was NEMO, a four-stage service helping municipalities to restore coral reefs. NEMO consist of specially designed transport boxes, a collaborative autonomous underwater drone and a digital platform.

"In the system we created, corals are pre-grown on structures made out of locally recycled concrete. The corals can be farmed either on land or in the ocean. After harvesting, the young corals are placed in specially designed transport boxes. These boxes regulate the water temperature and the PH-value to support the young corals during transportation", says Mario Kapsalis.

When the corals, fixed in crates in the transport box, arrive at the targeted site the crates are mounted onto the NEMO drone that assists during planting and monitoring. Once NEMO is loaded with about one hundred corals, two divers go down to the dying reef. As one diver drills holes in the ocean floor with a pneumatic drill, the other glues the corals in place with a special bio-adhesive glue.

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All the planted corals are then 3D scanned and mapped by the NEMO drone. This means that NEMO, at a later stage, can autonomously follow up and monitor the development of the corals. All data is collected and processed on a digital platform, making it available for future coral reef restoration projects across governmental agencies, research groups and civil communities.

"Should the project itself not be picked up for further development we hope it can still inspire people working with these important issues. Perhaps some of our ideas can be translated into future solutions for restoring coral reefs around the world. Either way, it has been really rewarding to create something that helps rebuild nature. In this way, we can perhaps give back what we are taking from it", says Elias Thaddäus Pfuner.