Using technology to combat starfish scourge
The crown-of-thorns starfish is a real bane for coral reefs, both
worldwide and specifically in Australia. They feed on corals and have
been responsible for about 40 percent of coral losses at the Great
Barrier Reef. Now, scientists are using technology to fight back.
Dr Matthew Dunbabin and Dr Feras Dayoub from Queensland University of
Technology, Brisbane, Australia has developed COTSbot, an underwater
robot with the mission to eliminate the starfish. It is equipped with
stereoscopic cameras, a GPS-based navigation system, five drive
components and a unique pneumatic injection needle that can inject
lethal bile salt into the starfish.
"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," said Dunbabin.
The plan is to deploy the COTSbot in any area infected with the
crown-of-thorns starfish. It can search the reef for the starfish for
as long as eight hours, and administer up to 200 lethal injections.
After a few days, divers will come in to deal with the surviving
The COTSbot has the advantage of having the ability to work day and
night, under any weather condition. It can survey the ocean floor
independently, and at one metre above the reef, without causing any
physical disturbance to the reef.
In addition to being an autonomous underwater vehicle, it can also
learn. In the last six months, the scientists have ‘taught’ the robot
to identify the crown-of-thorns starfish, using thousands of photos and
videos. In this way, the COTSbot can operate on its own without human
If it comes across something which it cannot confirm is actually a
crown-of-thorns starfish, it takes a photo of it. Someone will then
review the photo and identify the object as a crown-of-thorns starfish
(or not). This information is then stored in the robot’s digital memory
for future reference.
Later this month, the COTSbot will be deployed at the Great Barrier
Reef. For this initial run, the decision to inject the bile salt will
have to be first approved by a scientist before the injection is
administered. The actual deployment of the COTSbot’s mission is
scheduled for December 2015.