The crown of thorns starfish is a beautiful menace. With a voracious appetite for coral, the spiky beasts sweep over reefs to leave chewed, chalky skeletons in their wake. Since the 1960s, chemicals and nutrients leaking into the sea after storms or watered farm field have allowed these sea stars’ populations to blossom, which in turn has made them a unique menace to large reefs like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. They are so problematic there, in fact, that divers must don their snorkels and get stabbin’ in hot spot areas.
But soon the divers will have help: a crown of thorns terminator.
Roboticists from the Queensland University of Technology have just completed sea trials of COTSbot (Crown of Thorns Starfish bot), a robot that is basically a free-swimming lethal injection. Able to autonomously patrol reefs at depths of up to 100 meters, and using a vision system that was taught with thousands of photos to recognize COTS on sight, COTSbot finds the starfish, hovers over them, and then injects a lethal dose of chemicals with a retractable needle.
The state-of-the-art vision system aboard the bot is now over 99% accurate and works in real-time as COTSbot operates for up to eight hours on end while delivering 200 deadly injections per deployment. Starfish terminated.
“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,” said Dr Matthew Dunbabin of the COTSbot team in a press release.
With its sea trials over, COTSbot is now headed to the front lines. The QUT roboticists hope to test it on the Great Barrier Reef later this month with live targets (which will each be verified by a human diver before destruction). If successful, it should be autonomously patrolling the seas by this December.
“The COTSbot becomes a real force multiplier for the eradication process the more of them you deploy,” said Dunbabin, “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.”
Let’s hope the starfish don’t figure out backwards time travel.