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PHL engineers build affordable reef monitoring system 'Teardrop'

August 22, 2012 6:29pm
A team of Filipino scientists and engineers has built what might be the most affordable equipment in the world to assess damaged coral reefs.

University of the Philippines physics professor Maricor Soriano said that the equipment, "Teardrop," is a better alternative to other reef assessment technologies on the market that can cost thousands of dollars, like high-tech remote video equipment.

Teardrop could be had for only $380 or P16,000. “Nobody has done this before on the cheap,” Soriano said.

As an automated rapid reef assessment system, Teardrop could be quickly deployed to check on reefs in the event of catastrophes.

Its being affordable and easy to build, use and repair would also go a long way in helping local communities, LGUs, non-government organizations, and fisherfolk organizations to regularly monitor reefs and enforce environmental laws in protected marine areas, said Soriano.

The professor added that the equipment has already been used in 22 sites, not just to check the health of the reefs but to determine potential marine sanctuaries.

“In places where the local governments are diligent in monitoring their reefs, we have empowered them so that they can make records very cheaply,” she said.

Teardrop could also help the Philippine Coast Guard to check on reefs in the event of oil spills and ship groundings.

Panorama of photographs

Teardrop was a team effort by Soriano, an optics expert, and four engineers from UP and the Mapua Institute of Technology: Roel John Judilla, Eusebio Capili Jr., Jaylord Jauod, and Francis James Corpuz.

The three-year project, which was presented at the International Coral Research Symposium in July, started in 2010 with a P13-million grant from the Department of Science and Technology.

Teardrop got its name from the shape of its Plexiglas hull. It houses an off-the-shelf Canon digital camera and a weatherproof and rechargeable GPS logger that the team sourced from Taiwan.

Fishermen or researchers can lower Teardrop from a slow-moving bangka to take videos or photographs underwater.

The image files are then processed using software made by the team and "stitched" together to make a panoramic mosaic of photographs.

Soriano said the equipment could record 4.5 kilometers of coral cover a day. The images can be processed from within a day or a week, depending on the area covered.

The images are then embedded on Google Earth: if someone wants to know the state of the reefs in, say, Anilao, Batangas, they could zoom in on the map online to see Teardrop's photographs.

In the future, Soriano said they could “crowdsource” the processing of the images using to tech-savvy Filipinos online. They also hope to have a database of the images online.

By engaging Filipinos who are living away from the coasts to help them in processing the files and contributing data, Soriano said she hopes that they would be inspired to take care of the country's reefs.

The Coral Triangle

The Philippines has one of the world's longest coastlines. It is also part of the Coral Triangle, the highly biodiverse marine area that includes the entirety of the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the Solomon Islands as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Coral Triangle contains nearly 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs and more than 3,000 species of fish — twice the number found anywhere else in the world.

Most of the reefs in the Philippines are fringing reefs, which are close to the shore and are constantly threatened by coastal development, aggressive fishing, and sedimentation.

A recent study by the World Research Institute reveals that the Philippines' coral cover is declining progressively thanks to overfishing, destructive fishing practices, oil spills, wastes, and climate change. Only one percent of Philippine reefs are in pristine state, down from three percent in 2000. About 40 percent of the country's reef cover is in poor condition.

So far, Soriano's team has tested the equipment in Tawi-Tawi, Samal Island in Davao del Norte and the Verde Island passage in Batangas, one of the busiest sea lanes in the country and a biodiversity hotspot.

Soriano said the team is hoping to extend the grant for Teardrop this year. Because of the possibility of coral bleaching from another El Nino event in the latter part of 2012, Soriano said they want to conduct “before” and “after” assessments of the country's reefs.

Teardrop's creators also hope to distribute it to other coastal communities to encourage them to look after their reefs more regularly. — BM, GMA News



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