AI-Driven Coral Health Assessment and Restoration in Colombia with 3D Photogrammetry
Initiated by Reef Support and bolstered by the support of WWF Netherlands INNO-fonds, this groundbreaking project spearheads a transformative approach to studying coral reefs. Selected through a call initiated by Reef Support to bring this technological leap to Colombia, Angela Alegria, in collaboration with Corales de Paz, stands at the forefront of this pioneering endeavor, aiming to safeguard the future of coral reefs and marine ecosystems.
Addressing the labor-intensive and outdated techniques of traditional coral health analysis, Angela Alegria, a Colombian biological engineer, harnesses the power of artificial intelligence on Providencia Island. Utilizing a specially designed support system equipped with a tube and two cameras, Alegria captures 1,500 photos during each dive, subsequently processed into detailed 3D models using specialized software.
The Below Text is Translated to English from the "El Tiempo" newspaper in Colombia
“Studying the ocean still requires laborious, manual, and outdated techniques in the modern world. For example, to analyze the health status of a coral reef, a group of at least 5 to 6 divers must descend and conduct one-hour inspections at least two to three times per day for several days. It is a titanic task. However, technology could completely change that and make activities like coral recovery and restoration more efficient.
With artificial intelligence, Angela Alegria, a Colombian biological engineer and researcher, seeks to optimize the process of collecting information about the condition of an area with corals in order to make faster decisions on how and where to restore them. The project is currently being developed on Providencia Island.
The support designed by the Colombian utilizes a tube and two cameras to capture at least 1,500 photos each time it is used. These data are then analyzed in specialized software.The idea is said to be simple. With the support of the organization Reef Support and the environmental NGO WWF Netherlands, the scientist built a support system used for marine photogrammetry. It is essentially a tube that uses two cameras to take photos while a person carries it underwater in a straight line.
Each time the device is used, around 1,500 photos are taken, which are later processed in a program to create 3D models that allow visualizing the condition of the studied area. This activity must be done at least once a year to compare how the studied area is changing."With the photomosaics, one can learn many things: the composition of that space, if there is one species more than another, how those coral species are. Because with good lighting, you can see the colors and check for the presence of diseases. You can even create elevation models to see how rough or complex the place is. When it comes to restoration, what one seeks to improve is to maintain or enhance that structural complexity," says Alegria.
Coral reefs are not just diving areas; they are also areas where hundreds of fish and marine species reproduce and grow, serving as a source of consumption and livelihood for coastal communities. It is estimated that Colombian reefs host more than 2,300 species necessary for the ecosystem stability not only of the country but of the entire Caribbean region.For example, thanks to the good conservation of its reefs and other joint protection measures, Colombia and Jamaica are home to the only area in the Caribbean where healthy and stable shark populations can be seen throughout the region.
According to the expert, who works with the Colombian organization Corales de Paz, beyond converting the data into 3D models, one of the most challenging aspects of the work is taking photos while diving almost perfectly, in a straight line, in an area that is usually 10 x 10 meters in size. All this at a depth that is usually 12 meters.
Perfect buoyancy is required when taking the photos; otherwise, the data won't work. According to Angela, this is the most complex part of the work."The most complex part is going very slowly in the presence of currents. And the other aspect is considering many things at once: one has to monitor the depth, manage the stability of the support, check if the cameras are functioning, look at the tangle of things in the sea to be able to sweep and have references of where you have passed. Many things have to be done simultaneously, and one has to be very focused," highlights the expert."Bringing marine conservation into the 21st century"
The idea for the support system arose thanks to a call made by Reef Support, which seeks to "bring marine conservation into the 21st century." The organization, which has already developed other support models in other parts of the world for the same work, launched a call for someone in Colombia (which has one of the largest coral coverages in the Caribbean and the world) to create a similar team and take advantage of the technology. Angela, through Corales de Paz, won that call.
"Our goal is to work on an economical and easy-to-build Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) to collect data more efficiently and safely (without the need for human divers) on reefs near the coast and in restoration areas. The camera system will be used to capture high-resolution images of coral reefs, which will be used to create 3D models through photogrammetry," stated Reef Support in their call.
As science is meant to be shared, although Alegria is the first and only person to conduct this type of study in Colombia, the data is available for research purposes. It is also expected that more scientists and researchers will be able to take advantage of the equipment developed by the expert, thus obtaining increasingly more information to safeguard corals, a crucial ecosystem for the future not only of the oceans but of humanity as a whole.”
Learn More about 3D Photogrammetry with Us
At Reef Support, we believe in sharing knowledge and fostering collaboration for a sustainable future. Our photogrammetry tools are not only at the forefront of marine research but are also available for broader research purposes. Dive into the world of marine conservation with us and discover how our tools and services are contributing to the preservation of coral reefs—an essential ecosystem for the oceans and humanity as a whole. Visit our website to learn more about our initiatives and how you can be part of the positive change for our planet's underwater wonders.
Conduct a research project with us
This project is a project very close to our hearts at Reef Support. It isn’t only about helping researchers work with coastal communities in their effort to innovate with digital technologies and monitor the reefs but also about fostering wide-spread marine knowledge. For interested students that want to take on a future challenge in reef-related research, do contact us and let us know about your idea, or if we have an opportunity we will see where you can play a role.