If there's any bigger threat to the Great Barrier Reef than our own environment-phobic Prime Minister, it can only be the crown-of-thorns starfish. Spiny, toxic and all around ugly, the crown-of-thorns preys on corals in the reef, decimating the ecosystem wherever outbreaks occur. While teams of divers delivering lethal injections have been managing outbreaks in recent years, roboticists from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have developed a robot that can search for up to eight hours at a time, day or night, in any weather conditions.
Meet the COTSbot.
It may not be as adorable as other patrolling robots we've seen recently, but when the COTSbot is sent on a patrol it means business.
Operating so close to the sea floor — one of the most difficult environments for autonomous robots to navigate — the COTSbot is equipped with some serious tech. With stereoscopic cameras for depth perception, five thrusters to maintain stability in all weather conditions, GPS and pitch-and-roll sensors and a pneumatic injection arm to deliver the fatal shot that previously divers would administer by hand — the COTSbot is one lean, mean starfish-killing machine.
Just like the human divers of the COTS eradication program, the COTSbot has undergone extensive training to prepare it for the task. The software that allows it to detect crown-of-thorns invaders among the diverse ecosystem of the Barrier Reef was trained over six months, using thousands of images of COTS taken by human divers. Dr Feras Dayoub, who is responsible for developing the software, claims that this is not the end to COTSbot's training, however. "Its computer system is backed by some serious computational power, so COTSbot can think for itself in the water," says Dr Dayoub.
While Facebook's facial recognition software will sometimes identifies your elbow as a face, the COTSbot will err on the side of caution, making sure only to inject a starfish if it is undoubtedly a crown-of-thorns. For those that it cannot definitively identify, it will take photos for later reference. These images can then be verified by a human, allowing the bot's detection systems to become increasingly advanced with each new search. The video below demonstrates how the COTSbot targets crown-of-thorns starfish, even in murky conditions.
COTSbot isn't quite ready to hit the reef yet, but initial tests look promising. The next step to pitch it against living starfish is a highly supervised search-and-destroy, where a human will verify each and every COTS identification the robot makes before it delivers the injection. Beyond these final tests, COTSbot's creator Dr Matthew Dunbabin sees a bright future for both his creation and the reef, imagining fleets of 10, or even up to 100 COTSbots working together to eradicate the threat of the crown-of-thorns starfish.