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
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
"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
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.
"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 progressed through the 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
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
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.