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An Autonomous Starfish Terminator Could Help Save the Great Barrier Reef

A small yellow submarine will be the harbinger of doom for crown-of-thorn starfish in the Great Barrier Reef.

by Emiko Jozuka
Sep 3 2015, 6:20pm

Image: QUT Media

Crown-of-thorn starfish (Acanthaster planci) are known to chomp their way through coral reefs, and have been pegged as the culprits behind a 50 percent decline in coral coverage on the Great Barrier Reef. But now researchers in Australia want to eliminate the starfish by unleashing some autonomous starfish killing robots into the Great Barrier Reef later this month.

The bots, dubbed COTSbots, deliver a lethal injection that kills crown-of-thorn starfish (COTS) on sight. But why is a killer robot needed in the first place?

According to the COTSbots creators, who hail from the Queensland University of Technology, while human divers are pretty adept at finding and eliminating the starfish, there just isn't enough people power to cover all the COTS infested zones in the Great Barrier Reef. The COTSbots will act like a miniature paramilitary fighters in the crusade against the invasive species, and can deliver more than 200 lethal shots and can search the reef for up to eight hours at a time.

The detection system in action.

"The COTSbot becomes a real force multiplier for the eradication process the more of them you deploy," said Matthew Dunbabin from the Queensland University of Technology's Institute for Future Environments in a statement. "Imagine how much ground the programs could cover with a fleet of ten or 100 COTSbots at their disposal, robots that can work day and night and in any weather condition."

As an oblong yellow submarine, the COTSbot doesn't look much like a killing machine. But don't be deceived. It delivers its lethal dose of bile salts through a pneumatic injection arm, has five thrusters keeping it stable, and an onboard visual system that lets it hone in on its target. A machine learning software also provides the robot with an onboard "memory" so it can refine its hunt and kill techniques.

"Its computer system is backed by some serious computational power so COTSbot can think for itself in the water," said Feras Dayoub a researcher from QUT, in a statement. "We've now trained the robot using thousands of images of COTS collected on the reef and the system is proving itself incredibly robust at detecting the COTS."

Researchers have just completed their first trials in the Queensland's Moreton Bay to check that all the mechanics were in place. They plan to unleash the robots onto the Great Barrier Reef in December 2015. The main aim is for the robots to ease the task for their human counterparts. It's not like the robots will be killing indiscriminately: To ensure there are no casualties, there will be some human divers on hand to check that the COTSbot is shooting the right target.

"We see the COTSbot as a first responder for ongoing eradication programs—deployed to eliminate the bulk of COTS in any areas, with divers following a few days later to hit the remaining COTS," said Dunbabin.

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