Go ask that microbot over there for a cigarette. (Photo courtesy of NOAA.)

Coral reefs are fragile. Their biggest enemies: storms and bottom-fishing. Their new best friend? Tiny robots.

Yes, robots are now good for more than speaking in a monotone and repeating the same non-sequitur every time you ask them a question. Researchers at Heriot-Watt University are developing swarms of underwater robots that can repair busted coral reefs. The “coralbots” will gather broken pieces of coral from the sea floor (they will be “trained” to differenciate coral from other things in the sea like rocks or shells or Spongebob Squarepants), and they will then affix these pieces to the remaining reef.

Why use microrobots and not, like, Bender? Because Bender would just break things, and besides, each microbot will be programmed in just one facet of the repair, which is much easier and cheaper than getting one big robot to do it all. And while we’re on the subject, why not humans? Well, because humans have this pesky need to maintain core body temperature, not to mention an annoying little habit called breathing.

The prediction is that microrobots will take weeks or months to do what nature would do in centuries. Hmm. Could they perhaps program a microbot to make a chopped salad?

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