Tech-driven coral reef conservation bolsters survival amid warming oceans

Coral reef conservation is critical as warming ocean temperatures are destroying these creatures. Learn how tech is helping keep them alive—and thriving.

Autodesk Video

June 8, 2023

4:27 video
  • Coral reefs are vital ecosystems that provide homes for a quarter of marine species.

  • Rising ocean temperatures have caused significant stress to coral reefs, leading to the loss of 50% of reefs worldwide.

  • Australian start-up Coral Maker is using 3D printing, robotics, and automation to mass-produce stone coral skeletons that are seeded with coral fragments to aid in the restoration of coral reefs.

  • By automating and accelerating the process of coral propagation, Coral Maker aims to significantly scale up coral reef restoration efforts.

Nicknamed the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs aren’t simply homes to uniquely shaped, brilliantly colored coral; they play an integral role in the ocean’s—and humankind’s—ecosystem, providing homes for at least 25% of all marine species, as well as sources of food and new medicines. These important natural structures also protect shorelines from destructive storms, waves, floods, and erosion.

But in the past six years, warmer, record-breaking ocean temperatures have caused massive stress to coral reef ecosystems, which leads to bleaching—a process that severely weakens and even kills the coral. Since 2016, the Great Barrier Reef has experienced four mass bleaching events. So what can be done to help save coral reefs across the globe?

Coral Maker, an Australia-based start-up, uses 3D printing, robotics, and manufacturing technology to mass produce premade stone coral skeletons—which are then seeded with fragments of coral—to help in rebuilding coral reefs. Using automation and artificial intelligence, Coral Maker’s system speeds up the process of coral propagation. Watch the video to learn about Coral Maker’s process—and dedication to re-creating a thriving ocean ecosystem.

View transcript

Dr. Taryn Foster, Coral Biologist and Founder, Coral Maker: Corals are colonial animals, and they grow into these structures that you can see from space and that support this incredible biodiversity. It’s one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Coral bleaching usually happens in response to a stress event like higher water temperatures. We’ve just had six consecutive years of record-breaking ocean temperatures. We’ve lost already around 50% of our coral reefs worldwide. Coral Maker’s mission is to significantly upscale coral reef restoration. At the moment, coral reef restoration is happening at quite a small scale, and a lot of the work is being done manually.

Dr. Nic Carey, Principal Research Scientist, Autodesk: Coral Maker is really the perfect sandbox project for Autodesk robotics research because it exists at this intersection between the need for adaptive robotics, the need for cutting-edge sensing, and the need for robots to work alongside people—not just shielded away in an industrial space, but to actually interact with people and have this seamless workflow between human workers and robot workers. Coral Maker embodies this.

Foster: Right now, we’re doing coral propagation. We’re just going to put some blobs of glue on these limestone plugs, and then we’ll stick the corals onto those.

Carey: This is the part that we’re working with Autodesk to develop the robotics for.

Dr. Yotto Koga, Architect, Robotics Lab, Autodesk: One of the big requirements is scale, and robotic automation, I think, is a pretty practical approach to try and meet those requirements. [Says to Carey] “The tree branches would be interesting when we have to worry about cutting them.”

Carey: [Says to Koga] “Well, maybe we just have, like, laser safety cuts.”

Robert Bowerman, Principal Technology Consultant, Autodesk: We’ve worked on manufacturing the initial prototypes for tooling that we use to make the coral skeletons that got deployed into the ocean. We had to find a common ground between something that was suitable to go into the ocean to drive coral reef growth. But we were also able to manufacture it at scale, and that was the real challenge that we had finding this perfect overlap.

Foster: Coral restoration projects are doing around a hectare per year at the moment. With Coral Maker’s technology, and paired with this largest supply chain and the development of this industry, we can do 100 hectares per year.

Carey: Taryn has an ability to communicate why this is so important and to give you that urgency and to make you feel that this is not only possible, but it is imperative and it is necessary. [Says to Koga] “I think the tree branches are ultimately going to be fine; if we can make sure we’re not damaging them, then we can really pick them up from anywhere.”

Foster: Relocating corals or assisted migration is something that I’m really passionate about. This is where I think that Coral Maker can have a lot of impact. We can actually move those reefs to locations that will be better for them under climate change. I want to see change, and I want to see our coral reef ecosystems get all the possible interventions they’re going to need to save them.

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