It can take anywhere from 10,000 to tens-of-millions of years for a coral reef to form, and just weeks for it to die.
Finicky coral needs perfect conditions to thrive: access to sunlight, and lots of clean, clear, salty water that’s warm—but not too warm.
But today’s conditions are far from favorable. Ocean temperatures are rising, a consequence of climate change. And a tragedy is in the making. Without intervention, we’re on track to lose 70%–90% of our planet’s most biodiverse ecosystem—the coral reefs of the world—by 2050.
That is, unless we find a faster way to bring coral reefs back from the brink.
A company called Coral Maker has done just that, and I’m excited to share its story today, on the UN’s World Oceans Day. My personal passion—the reason I became an architect, and now am so proud of what we do at Autodesk Research—is to help create better environments and a healthier planet, and support others who are doing the same.
Coral Maker uses manufacturing technology to deliver coral reef restoration at scale. Autodesk and the Autodesk Foundation provide pro bono support, digital tools, artificial intelligence (AI) technology, and robotics expertise. This collaboration has helped Coral Maker achieve the major milestone of piloting its solution off the coast of Western Australia, and now the company seeks investment to deliver its vision of restoring hundreds of hectares of coral reefs per year.
“We’ve just had six consecutive years of record-breaking ocean temperatures, and we’ve already lost around 50% of coral reefs worldwide,” says Dr. Taryn Foster, Coral Maker’s founder, in the brief documentary video we released today. “At the moment, coral reef restoration is happening at quite a small scale, and a lot of the work is being done manually. Current restoration projects are doing around a hectare a year. With Coral Maker’s technology, paired with a larger supply chain and the development of this industry, we can do 100 hectares a year.”
A lightbulb moment: mass production for coral reef restoration
Foster’s lifelong love affair with coral began as a sand- and salt-soaked child growing up on the wild and remote coast of Western Australia, snorkeling the coral reefs at Ningaloo and the Abrolhos Islands. She searched for manta rays, swam with sharks, and found wonder in the turquoise waters.
Foster’s family owns a business that manufactures commercial quantities of limestone and concrete blocks. But Foster chose to follow her passion for the ocean and studied marine biology, specializing in coral biology.
In the summer of 2016, a catastrophic global coral bleaching event devastated the Australian reef Foster was studying. The entire reef system crashed. Between 60% and 90% of the corals perished, as did many of the fish and marine life that depended on the reef.
Foster’s childhood playground was destroyed by the force of climate change.
The deeply painful experience of that summer changed Foster’s life, pointing her toward a career of trying to save coral. But existing reef restoration efforts don’t keep up with the rate of degradation. From her childhood emerged inspiration: Could mass-production technology like the kind used in her family’s masonry business be applied to saving coral?
A Fulbright fellowship took Foster to San Francisco and the California Academy of Sciences, which led to her joining the Autodesk Technology Centers Outsight Network as an on-site resident, collaborating with Autodesk employees across North America, then England. Autodesk contributed experts in AI and robotic automation, product design and engineering, and advanced manufacturing to her project.
And the idea took off.
Advanced manufacturing, AI, and robotics to the rescue
Coral Maker uses the family’s masonry manufacturing machines and recycled stone waste from the construction industry to mass produce stone bases, called skeletons, that provide coral an ideal environment on which to grow and thrive. The skeletons act like a garden bed. AI-guided robotic arms transplant live coral fragments onto seed plugs, then attach them to the skeletons.
The seeded skeletons are then “planted” in optimal waters in the ocean where the coral begins to grow and fuse to coat the surface of the skeleton. It reaches adult size in 12 to 24 months—much faster than the many years it would take to grow its own skeleton, layer by layer.
Autodesk AI researchers based in our Technology Center in San Francisco helped develop and train the robotic arms. Consultants based at our Technology Centre in Birmingham, UK, used Autodesk Fusion 360, a key technology in Autodesk’s Design and Make Platform, to design and prototype the skeletons, seed plugs, trays, and components that convert masonry machines into coral skeleton manufacturers. In Australia, the Foster family factory proved out the manufacturing process. And Fusion 360’s cloud-collaboration features kept the entire global team connected across oceans and time zones.
The technology they’ve developed is designed to be easily deployed close to restoration sites using locally sourced aggregate mixes.
Taken together, the system provides inexpensive and fast production of up to 10,000 skeletons per day, each with the capacity to hold six to eight coral fragments—a total of 60,000 to 80,000 corals. Foster aims to deliver millions to tens-of-millions of them each year to give coral reefs a second chance.
“Collaborating with Autodesk has created an incredible link between biology and technology. This link empowered us to develop new technologies to restore reefs at a rate that was unimaginable just a few years ago,” says Foster. “And while coral reef restoration at this scale requires the kind of nature tech Coral Maker provides, we also need to scale the restoration economy. Recent, rapid developments in nature repair markets have us speaking with ESG and impact investors. I think we are close to a tipping point and scaled regeneration of our ecosystems is about to become a reality, which is very exciting.”