Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is slowly being killed by attacking armies of Crown-of-Thorns starfish. However, Australia now has an way to combat the invasive species: a fleet of killer (for starfish at least) robots that are trained to recognize a Crown-of-Thorns starfish and kill it by lethal injection.
According to NBC News:
It sounds like the plot to a bad sci-fi movie, but it’s very real. These starfish have multiplied in recent years, and are estimated to have caused 40 percent of the reef’s coral loss. Divers regularly do sweeps for COTS, as they’re called, but they don’t call it the Great Barrier Reef for nothing — there’s a lot of space to cover.
Queensland University of Technology’s Matthew Dunbabinand Feras Dayoub have created a submersible robot that patrols just a foot or two off the sea or coral floor, using a specially-trained computer vision program to watch for COTS. When it spots one, it will extend a syringe and give the animal a dose of bile salts, a poison that happens to be especially effective against the starfish.
The robot also will try to minimize false positives: “If the robot is unsure that something is actually a COTS, it takes a photo of the object to be later verified by a human, and that human feedback is incorporated into the robot’s memory bank,” explained Dayoub in QUT’s news release.
“We see the COTSbot as a first responder for ongoing eradication programs,” said Dunbabin, “Deployed to eliminate the bulk of COTS in any area, with divers following a few days later to hit the remaining COTS.”
At least, that’s the plan. For now, the COTSbot is still in prototype form — functional, but untested. It will soon take to the seas for some initial runs, during which every COTS identification must be confirmed by a human before the injection takes place. But with time, fleets of COTSbots could scan the corals, allowing the troubled ecosystem time to recover. Let’s just hope the robots don’t decide humans are the next threat.
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