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 crown-of-thorn starfish.
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 intervention.
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.