Restoration of Earth's ecosystems has accelerated as a critical management tool in the past decade, particularly for coral reefs where stakeholders have adopted restoration to offset continued declines in reef health. Most coral reef restoration programs remain locally targeted and sub-hectare, where scalability is generated through people networks. Of the few programs that are now beginning to operate at the largest multi-hectare scales - including the KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative (KRRI) - implementation of innovative robotics and automation is seen as key to deliver more industrial (agricultural) based processes that are proving critical to deliver effective terrestrial-based restoration. This presentation will first present the complex process of coral reef restoration, which spans growing and replanting new coral across challenging marine habitats to high-resolution ecological and environmental monitoring. Specifically, the critical steps of in-water coral propagation, land-based aquaculture propagation, transporting and re-attaching coral back to the reef, and tracking - and responding to - ecological and environmental change over space and time. In doing so, I outline how robotics and automation innovations are needed to transform these steps and so deliver the grand challenge of effective reef restoration at unprecedented scale.
Professor David Suggett is Chief Scientist for the KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative (KRRI) at Shushah Island and a Professor in Practice (BESE) at KAUST. He is a world leading expert in coral biology and how corals shape the functioning of reef systems, from scales spanning coral reef microbes to human-ecological interactions. Prior to moving to KAUST in 2023, he was a Professor at University of Technology Sydney, where he established and led the "Future Reefs" Program, Australia's largest team dedicated to unlocking how the environment and climate change influence corals of the Great Barrier Reef. This interest led to a world-first partnership between researchers and tourism (the largest economic asset to the Great Barrier Reef) to restore degraded sites at scale, the "Coral Nurture Program", which he co-founded and led for 4 years. Work through the Coral Nurture Program has led to innovative methods to propagate and plant coral for reef restoration, and in recognition as a global model for successful targeted reef restoration, become an official Actor for the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration in 2022. Professor Suggett has contributed to numerous international committees and workshops for studying and conserving coral reefs, and is currently the Chair for the Field-Based Propagation Working Group for the Coral Restoration Consortium - the international body dedicated to advancing knowledge on reef restoration. His research has produced >200 scientific articles and regularly featured through global media outlets, including the BBC, Al Jazeera and National Geographic.