Smart technology introduces children to reef conservation

ReefBot at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium allows children to navigate, find, record, and identify marine life in a coral reef habitat.

Six-year-old Imogen Sharif runs through the PPG Aquarium at the Pittsburgh Zoo, heading straight for the yellow submarine stationed outside the two-story glass “open ocean” display. She stands before the controls, driving the underwater robot through the coral and around the sharks. Flicking the joystick, the monitor reveals the robot’s camera is pointed not toward the fish but outward, at Sharif. She presses a button to take a picture of her “find” and waits as the robot identifies this latest catch. A second later, Reefbot reveals the species in question: future marine biologist.

Go Fish

ReefBot’s interactive display started with Ashley Kidd, an aquarist, who wanted to find a solution to explores the ocean’s “twilight zone” — uncharted territory of the oceans that are too deep for technical divers to reach with their gas tanks and cameras, but too shallow for ocean explorers to warrant a trip with costly submarines. The zone between 200 and 500 feet deep is brimming with undiscovered species, animal behaviors, and ecology. Mobility and time constraints limit research. Coral reefs are also drastically endangered, and without intervention could face annihilation.

She talked over the problem with her friend, Michael Furlong, a PhD candidate at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make robots that could hang out in all these dangerous places and they could do the exploration for us?”

Furlong thought the idea sounded both cool and possible–in fact, his own research into space exploration robots seemed to involve similar problems of pressure, light, and terrain. Furlong knew robots already were doing this sort of work in flooded caverns in Mexico.

Furlong lived and worked with several other roboticists, and his housemate Mark Desnoyer was eager to join the conversation. They were sure that existing hardware and software could be tweaked to suit an open ocean application. While current robots were recording hours of footage of nothingness, Desnoyer and Furlong thought they could create software that trained a robot to only record when it thought it saw a new species, or when it saw a specific, pre-determined type of fish or plants. With smart cameras and programming, they could save workers from spending eight hours staring at footage of shifting light and murky rocks.

Then attorney Justine Kasznica entered into their discussions. Kasznica, who has a passion for robotic projects, particularly those geared toward kids, also has a knack for connecting people with funding for their projects. She thought the Sprout Fund’s Spark Program could be a good fit for the ocean robot.

Sprout was impressed with this group of young professionals. These are the kinds of endeavors they want to support – people who come together from multiple disciplines and seemingly unrelated fields, and who bring their expertise together to conceive of a project that is geared towards children and education.

Their idea for ReefBot solidified the notion that great minds throughout the Pittsburgh region could join forces to do anything–in this case, create an educational tool for local kids that also had the potential to solve major problems of coral reef devastation or exploration of terrain too dangerous for humans.

ReefBot received the Sprout’s Fund $50,000 Super Spark Project Grant, the Fund’s largest annual award. Upon receiving the funds, the team had just over six months to create software, design and build an exhibit, and acquire an underwater robot before the projected grand opening of this project in November 2010.

“Fish Recognition Technology”

Back to Ashley Kidd, who knew the ocean tank at the PPG Aquarium was the ideal testing ground for this sort of robot. The group imagined some type of kiosk on the bottom level, where there was currently tons of foot traffic for the touch tank, but no display or interactive use for the space. Kidd also knew the Aquarium’s Bob Snowden had connections with a group called SECORE, who researches coral spawning in Curacao. Kidd felt their project had great potential to partner with SECORE using live, underwater video streaming for outreach and also using the Curacao reefs as future field-testing grounds for the fish identification software.

Both Snowden and assistant curator Allen McDowell loved the idea of an interactive robotics exhibit. McDowell, who’d worked with robots during his days at Disney, saw the idea as innovative. He says, “Using facial recognition software to identify a fish is so novel and unique. Pair that with using the kids to help teach the robot how to tell the fish apart…wow! This idea promised to create a level of interaction that’s just not seen anywhere else.”

And so, the gang had secure partnerships with both the Robotics Institute and the Pittsburgh Zoo. Everyone involved loved the notion that children would have an interactive display would let them drive a robot, take pictures of the species in the tank and expose them to both robotics and current research in ocean exploration. The team also incorporated an educational piece about the fragile conditions of the endangered reefs throughout the world.

Snowden believes that children only “care about what they understand. The more kids can go down and play with that robot and understand that information, the more they’ll be excited, which translates into future marine biologists.”

Furlong and Desnoyer also worked with Scott Moreland and John Thornton, who had the expertise to develop the smart camera for the robot. While the initial spark of the ReefBot project came from ‘twilight zone’ exploration, the reality of the project focused on general reef exploration. They wanted this fish recognition software and smart camera to eventually help with fish census data or quantification of preservation efforts for increased species populations.

And so, the engineers and programmers partnered with aquarists and biologists at the Zoo, sharing expertise as the other team members worked on exhibit design, graphics, and the physical kiosk display in the Aquarium.

Making a Splash Globally

As predicted, kids loved the Reefbot. McDowell points out that teaching aquariums struggle to relate the technology of their field to children. He couldn’t be happier by its public reception and says, “ReefBot not only does a great job of educating our visitors about the animals and the biology behind the exhibit, but it also shows them the tools we actually use in the field.”

Snowden says there is “potential for a child in Pittsburgh to drive ReefBot in the water while we work to restore a genetically diverse coral population. These children could see evolutionary applications of global climate change live via the Internet. It’s a pretty amazing goal.”

Meanwhile, the exhibit continues to attract support and fascination from organizations around the world. ReefBot’s has been visited by marine biologists from Texas A&M University who have done work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

McDowell says, “the potential for this project is really limitless. We have perfect timing for ReefBot from a technological, exhibit, and research standpoint. The potential future applications keeps us going and developing and helps these projects become much more than we ever dreamed they could be.”

ReefBot has earned the status of Ambassador to the Living Reefs and has begun working with Reel Change to help tell their story worldwide. The team plans to develop an autonomous nonprofit organization to consult with other aquariums about installation of similar projects, helping to get ReefBots into the open ocean to not only educate the public about critical conservation efforts, but also assist in some of this work by charting and identifying the species who dwell in our oceans.

Written by Katy Rank Lev

Published August 02, 2011