Starfish-Killing Robot to Rescue Great Barrier Reef
An autonomous robot with a lethal injection arm is about to save coral reefs from destruction.
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is under siege. An overpopulation of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) is feeding on the coral and over the last 30 years has consumed nearly 50 percent of it, according to research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
But the world's first starfish-killing robot is coming to the rescue.
The COTSbot, an autonomous underwater vehicle developed by Matthew Dunbabin and Feras Dayoub of the Queensland University of Technology, completed its first sea trials this week in Queensland's Moreton Bay and is set to begin its killing spree this December.
It comes equipped with stereoscopic cameras to give it depth perception, pitch-and-roll sensors to keep it stable and GPS to keep it on the right path.
COTSbot also has a state-of-the-art computer vision system that was trained with thousands of still images of the reef and videos to help the robot recognize the starfish.
If the robot is unsure whether an object is a COT starfish, it will snap an image of it and ask a human to confirm. A yes or no answer gets wrapped into the robot's machine-learning algorithm so that it learns and advances its technique for ultimately finding the starfish without any human intervention.
But most importantly, perhaps, the COTSbot comes with a pneumatic injection arm designed to deliver a lethal dose of bile salts into the starfish.
The machine is ruthless. It's capable of searching the reef for up to eight hours at a time, delivering more than 200 lethal shots.
"We see the COTSbot as a first responder for ongoing eradication programs - deployed to eliminate the bulk of COTS in any area, with divers following a few days later to hit the remaining COTS," Dunbabin said in a press statement.
You may be wondering at this point, is such a robot necessary? After all, crown-of-thorns starfish are not an invasive species and they do call the reef their home. So what gives?
Scientists have a couple of theories for why the starfish population has exploded, but it seems to be a combination of fewer predators - thanks to fishing and shell collecting - as well as wastewater runoff, which increases plankton blooms that serve as food for crown-of-thorns starfish larvae.
Between now and December, the QUT roboticists will train COTSbot on living starfish at the Great Barrier Reef. It won't inject the brine until a human allows it, but after training, COTSbot will be on its own.
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