Physicist Maricor Soriano is dedicated to creating innovative, low-cast methods to map the Philippines’s coral reefs. The archipelago is estimated to have 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs, but as the World Wildlife Foundation’s Gregg Yan writes, it’s hard to know the exact numbers because, “like forests, coral cover fluctuates yearly.”
The traditional method of tracking the reefs is through a process called “manta towing,” Soriano says in a talk at TEDxMiriamCollege. It consists of towing a snorkeler behind a motorboat, and having the snorkeler assess the coral cover visually.
“The [problem] with manta tow is that it gets too tiring, and there is subjectivity there, and you don’t have permanent visual records,” Soriano says. “You can also hire scuba divers and marine ecologists to take a video of the sea floor, but the thing with all of these [methods] is that they’re labor intensive; they can be inaccurate; and they are expensive.”
To address the problem, Soriano launched the Automated Rapid Reef Assessment System (ARRAS), a collective of Filipino scientists dedicated to invent new mapping systems, “so that the Philippines can map its coral reefs effectively and efficiently,” she says.
“We thought: ‘We are an archipelagic country. 60% of our country is covered by sea or near the coast. We have different designs of banca [fishing boats] all over the Philippines. Why not use the banca?’”
So the team set out to invent new technology for the banca. One is called Teardrop — a submersible plexiglass unit fit with a GoPro camera and a GPS system — which takes 6-second videos of the ocean floor as a banca moves. Teardrop is paired with software called, “Kiko and Stitch,” created by Soriano’s student Francis Corpuz; the software stitches Teardrop’s videos together to create complete visuals of the reefs.
ARRAS uses the videos, GPS data and Corpuz’s software to upload the maps to Google Earth, so that they can be better explored.
“[With these maps] the coastal communities then have an idea where the coral reefs — and where the resources are — and how they look,” Soriano says.
Another banca accessory created by the ARRAS is a kite fit with cameras and GPS units to take aerial photos of reefs. “It’s easy to operate — you just let the kite go and they fly with camera in tow,” Soriano says. “When we demonstrate [the kite system] to the coastal communities and the coastal managers — who are mostly volunteer fisherman who guard their marine protected areas — they like using it.”
The newest ARRAS creation is called The Towpedo, a torpedo-shaped, more compact version of Teardrop, designed to move through the water quickly, and is so small it “can be carried in a knapsack,” Soriano says.
“This is local solutions for global problems,” Soriano says.
Watch her whole talk to learn more: