The underwater robot assassin that can automatically inject its victim with a lethal poison: Researchers reveal killer craft that could save the Great Barrier Reef from invading starfish
The world’s first robot designed to seek out and kill the Great Barrier Reef’s crown-of-thorn starfish is set to be working in the world heritage site by December.
The COTSbot completed its first sea trials in Queensland’s Moreton Bay this week, seeking out the scourge of the world’s largest coral reef.
Crown-of-thorns starfish are a significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef as they are responsible for an estimated 40 per cent of the reef’s total decline in coral cover.
The robot, which has a vision system, is designed to seek out starfish and give them a lethal injection of bile salts.
It will search the reef for up to eight hours at a time, and deliver more than 200 lethal shots.
After it eradicates the bulk of starfish in a given area, human divers can move in and clean up the survivors.
Created by Drs Matthew Dunbabin and Feras Dayoub from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Mr Dunbabin told Daily Mail Australia the COTSbot will be a first responder for ongoing eradication.
‘Human divers are doing an incredible job of eradicating this starfish from targeted sites but there just aren’t enough divers to cover all the COTS hotspots across the Great Barrier Reef.
‘The COTSbot becomes a real force multiplier for the eradication process the more of them you deploy – imagine how much ground the programs could cover with a fleet of 10 or 100 COTSbots at their disposal, robots that can work day and night and in any weather condition.’ Dr Dunbabin said.
QUT roboticists have spent the last six months developing and training the robot to recognise COTS among coral, using thousands of still images of the reef and videos taken by COTS-eradicating divers.
The roboticists will take COTSbot to the Great Barrier Reef later this month to trial it on living targets, with the hope it will be running autonomously by December.
Dr Feras Dayoub, who designed the COTS-detecting software, said the robot would continue to learn from its experiences in the field.
‘Its computer system is backed by some serious computational power so COTSbot can think for itself in the water,’ said Dr Dayoub, from QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty andAustralian Centre for Robotic Vision.
‘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.
‘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.
‘That in itself is quite an accomplishment given the complexity of underwater environments, which are subject to varying visibility as well as depth-dependent colour changes.’
The roboticists believe COTSbot is the first autonomous underwater vehicle to be equipped with an injection system.
It’s also designed to operate exclusively within a metre of the seafloor, one of the most dynamic and challenging environments for any robot.
Dr Dunbabin first built a vision system for detecting COTS from underwater images ten years ago but shelved the idea of building a robot due to the limitations of the eradication methods in use, which required divers to inject each COTS up to 20 times.
A breakthrough from James Cook University (JCU) last year allowed him to refloat the project.
‘I was really pleased to hear about JCU’s announcement last year of a one-shot injection method that had proved just as effective,’ Dr Dunbabin said.
‘That was the game changer that opened the doors for a robotic solution to the COTS problem. Combining this with new advances in machine learning meant we could make COTSbot a reality.’
The roboticists are seeking to scale up the manufacturing and deployment of the COTSbot, but need funding partners to do so.