Nature and Biodiversity

How 6 robots are helping to protect our ocean

Around 80% of the ocean floor is unmapped and unexplored.

Around 80% of the ocean floor is unmapped and unexplored. Image: Unsplash/Joseph Barrientos

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • The ocean is critical to life on Earth, but it is coming under enormous environmental pressure.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action group says it’s not too late to help them recover.
  • Here’s how robots are playing their part in protecting the marine environment.

The ocean covers almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and contain 80% of its biodiversity. Life would be impossible without them, yet they are under threat as never before. But robot technology is helping protect them for the future.

As well as absorbing almost a third of our carbon emissions, the ocean has soaked up 90% of the additional heat that human-generated global warming has created.

The Friends of Ocean Action, a group of global leaders convened by the World Economic Forum, says it’s not too late to save the seas. “We have the knowledge, power and technology to put the ocean on a path to recovery,” the group says. “The ocean’s power of regeneration is remarkable, if we just offer it the chance.”

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Technology has a key role to play in saving our seas, and the six solutions featured here harness the power of robotics to do so. Many are members of the Ocean community on the Forum’s Uplink innovation crowdsourcing platform.

1. Mapping the seafloor

German company Planblue is creating a highly detailed map of the ocean floor using a robotic “underwater satellite” that relies on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to navigate.

Around 80% of the ocean floor is unmapped and unexplored. Planblue’s advanced imaging will provide a clear picture of the impact of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution in the ocean. Helping identify problems is the first step to identifying solutions.

2. Protecting whales

As many as 30,000 whales are killed or injured every year in collisions with ships, according to the World Cetacean Alliance. The largest and most endangered species are most at risk, but technology is coming to their aid.

In California, Whale Safe uses an acoustic buoy to listen for whales and transmit a warning to ships to slow down. It has already cut the number of whale collisions in the busy shipping lane leading to the port of Los Angeles.

Canadian company Whale Seeker uses AI to automate aerial and infrared imagery to detect the presence of sea mammals. As well as preventing collisions, it can monitor the activities of whale populations over wide areas.

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3. Monitoring marine health

Underwater drone Hydrus, designed by Australian innovators Advanced Navigation, is capable of diving 3,000 metres below the ocean surface. Equipped with powerful lights and able to operate completely autonomously, it can locate and identify new marine species.

Hydrus can also monitor the health of coral reefs and will help plug serious gaps in our knowledge about ocean life, giving decision-makers new insights into how to protect and conserve ocean ecosystems. And all in a package that weighs less than 7 kilograms.

4. A census of the ocean’s inhabitants

Jellyfish in the ocean.
Only 10% of sea creatures have so far been identified. Image: Unsplash/Sangga Rima Roman Selia

Just like the authorities on dry land, ocean conservationists need to know who and what lives where. There are estimated to be 2.2 million marine species, but only 10% of them have been discovered and named. Now scientists are going looking for the rest.

Using remote underwater robots, Ocean Census will seek out new species with a goal of discovering 100,000 new creatures within a decade. High-resolution imaging and lasers will be supplemented by technology that can sequence DNA shed into the ocean by its inhabitants.

5. Creating an underwater internet to aid exploration

The internet of things is increasingly commonplace on dry land. But can we do the same thing underwater? Italian firm WSense has a solution.

Using patented acoustic and optical technologies, it enables submerged devices and remote sensors to network and share data, solving what has been a major problem in ocean monitoring. As well as environmental benefits, it also has aquaculture, energy, security and defence applications.

6. Genetic ocean health check

View of autonomous robot submarines.
Autonomous robot submarines are monitoring environmental DNA. Image: MBARI

The ocean is full of DNA. It’s shed by living creatures and it’s known as environmental DNA, or eDNA. A team at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California is using long-range autonomous robot submarines to collect eDNA and monitor ocean health.

“This DNA soup offers clues about biodiversity changes in sensitive areas, the presence of rare or endangered species, and the spread of invasive species – all critical to understanding, promoting and maintaining a healthy ocean,” the MBARI team says.

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