Smart coral reefs: This underwater, fish-spotting AI helps protect the rainforest of the sea

Intel and Accenture deployed artificial coral reefs equipped with AI to help researchers monitor the health of coral reefs.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Intel and Accenture are working on a project to monitor and restore coral reefs in the Philippines. Project CORaiL uses artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor, characterize and analyze coral reef resiliency around Pangatalan Island in the Philippines. 

Together with Philippine-based non-profit Sulubaaï Environmental Foundation, Intel and Accenture launched Project CORaiL in May 2019, and so far 40,000 images have been collected to help researchers gauge reef health in real time. 

The abundance and diversity of fish, which reflects a reef's health, is usually recorded by human divers, either directly underwater or by capturing visual content that can be analyzed once back in the lab. The method has its shortcomings, not least because divers are limited to a maximum of 30 minutes spent underwater. In addition, human interference with wildlife can affect survey results.

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Intel and Accenture, therefore, came up with a technology that can record and analyze activity directly inside of the reef. To do so, the companies' engineers implemented an artificial, concrete reef under the water, in which they inserted video cameras. The cameras were then fitted with Accenture's video analytics platform; powered by Intel's processors, the platform uses AI to detect, classify and photograph fish as they pass. The data is then sent to a buoy on the surface, which transfers the analytics and trends gathered by the cameras via Wi-Fi or 4G to researchers – and all in real time. 

"The value of your data depends on how quickly you can glean insights to make decisions from it," said Athina Kanioura, Accenture's chief analytics officer. "With the ability to do real-time analysis on streaming video, VASP (Video Analytics Services Platform) enables us to tap into a rich data source – in effect doing 'hand on' monitoring without disrupting the underwater environment."

Better understanding of the coral reefs's health will enable researchers to monitor trends in climate change, as the effects of pollution, ocean acidification, unsustainable fish practices or raising water temperatures have a direct impact on the underwater ecosystems. 

What's more, Project CORaiL is expected to do its bit in restoring the reef surrounding Pangatalan Island. The artificial reefs deployed for the project, designed together with Sulubaaï Environmental Foundation, effectively provide strong support for unstable coral fragments. Within the platforms are fragments of living coral that will grow and expand, providing a hybrid habitat for fish and marine life.


Engineers implemented an artificial, concrete reef under the water, in which they inserted video cameras.  

Image: Intel

Named Sulu-Reef Prosthesis, the artificial concrete reefs were originally designed in 2016 by Sulubaaï to increase the resilience of coral ecosystems around the island, and to restore the reefs that had been destroyed by dynamite fishing. Any type of coral can attach to the prosthesis, with surveys showing a survival rate of 76% in the first year of fixing. Concrete is one of the materials that most closely resembles natural reef formations.

Often called the "rainforests of the sea", the sand and pockets of rock found in reefs provide habitat and shelter for about 25% of global marine life. Reefs also protect coastlines from tropical storms, provide food, and generate tourism income; it is estimated altogether, they provide resources for up to 500 million people across the world.

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Because of threats both natural and man-generated, however, coral ecosystems are increasingly at risk. Between 2014 and 2017, in an episode that came to be known as the coral bleaching event, unusually warm waters affected 70% of the reef ecosystem worldwide, especially in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Intel, Accenture and Sulubaaï are hoping that Project CORaiL can soon start expanding to more reefs to help tackle the crisis. Engineers are already working on a new prototype including a better-optimized AI classifier, as well as a backup power supply.

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