How a sub-sea, seed-planting, climate-change fighting robot could regenerate ocean ecosystems

by Adam Skovron 

11 December 2020

An ocean floor

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We create today what really matters tomorrow. NTT Ltd.’s partnership with Red Bull Basement reflects our mission and values, empowering and nurturing the next generation of talent and disruptors, focusing on the impact both in society and people. It’s a concept-driven by using tech for good and encourages university students to contribute great ideas that build the skills we need to change everything. It provides a global platform for students to challenge the status quo and develop technology-based solutions to improve and disrupt.

NTT Ltd. is hosting, mentoring and co-creating sessions between teams and 25 of our experts across the business, mirroring our belief in distributed innovation and commitment to developing upcoming talent. With the 38 finalists selected, I want to showcase NTT Ltd.’s wildcard team, ROBOCEAN, and detail why their original and innovative idea earned a place at the global workshop.

Restoring seagrass, the ‘lungs of the ocean’

Seagrasses are a vital part of the marine ecosystem. The submerged flowering plants are known as ‘the lungs of the ocean’ and are found in shallow marine waters. Seagrass is responsible for 11% of all saltwater carbon dioxide storage and critical to marine biodiversity. ROBOCEAN is a new technology device aimed at restoring ‘the lungs of the ocean’ by creating more seagrass meadows, which are important to the ocean’s ecosystem due to their productivity level. Seagrass meadows provide food, habitat and, nursery areas for various marine species.

Seagrasses are a vital part of the marine ecosystem and responsible for 11% of all saltwater Co2 storage.

During the last century, 92% of British seagrass has disappeared, due to boat anchors scrapping through meadows, sewage, livestock waste, and water pollution, which kills this delicate plant and stops it from thriving. In some areas, around the equivalent of two football fields of seagrass is lost every hour.

Seagrass meadows are 35 times more effective than the Amazon rainforest at capturing carbon dioxide emissions per square meter.

Most seagrass meadow restoration projects to date rely on planting seeds by hand; however, ocean divers alone won’t be able to cover the distance or speed required to see these areas thrive once again.

Beach and waves breaking

‘Divers alone can’t cover the distance or speed needed to replace lost seagrass meadows.’

Mechanizing seagrass restoration for a cleaner world

ROBOCEAN is pioneering the next generation of subsea robotics, creating the mechanization of seagrass restoration. At the touch of a button, ROBOCEAN machines will crawl along the seafloor and plant seagrass to create new meadows, positively impacting local biodiversity and reducing the carbon footprint. Divers can leave the ocean and stay on the land, where they can put their efforts to work more efficiently. A laptop can be used as the controller for the robot; however, the next step is an autonomous version where the device is dropped in the water to immediately begin planting. More accurate mapping and sophisticated sensors are needed so the robot doesn’t bump into anything. A fixed camera will assist with monitoring, while a special lightbulb will ensure that fish who are sensitive to certain types of light are not affected.

The robot design

The ROBOCEAN prototype

Turning to technology to achieve greater automation and efficiencies

The idea was born when life-long environmentalist and ROBOCEAN’s project manager Niall McGrath came across an action group whose members planned to collect and sow one million seagrass seeds by hand; an idea that Niall believed needed refining because of the massive dent in resource management and scale of the operation. Large teams of volunteer divers were dedicating hundreds of hours to distributing seeds across 20 hectares along the coast of Wales.

ROBOCEAN began from the need to automate a process and make it more efficient, to tackle the problem faster than before. The team spent time in COVID-19 lockdown wisely, with Niall and mechanical engineer Isobel Harris completing five months of research and planning for the prototype.

If ROBOCEAN is the Red Bull Basement winner, they’ll immediately get to work building a prototype that would enable them to test the robot on a 5x5 meter area to understand exactly how much the robot should weigh and how fast it can move.

The difference between a good thing and a great thing is the positive impact it has on the world. We wish ROBOCEAN and every other Red Bull Basement finalist the best of luck during the development phase. I’m excited to see what innovation comes out of it and the people with a passion for innovating with purpose.

Learn more about Red Bull Basement and other ways we’re working together to do great things.

Adam Skovron 

Senior Vice President, Innovation Frameworks & IP Capture, NTT Ltd.

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