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Robot assassin protects the reef

By David, 21 September 2015

A coral reef. tHere is a spiky starfish with targets drawn on it.

Image: COTSbot finds a target
Credit: Feras Dayoub, QUT

The crown-of-thorns is a venomous starfish that lives in the Great Barrier Reef. Growing up to massive lengths of 80 centimetres and having a body entirely covered in toxic spikes, the starfish is almost indestructible and is a vicious predator. They eat coral, the building blocks of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s said that one adult starfish can eat up to ten square metres of coral every year.

Recently populations of crown-of-thorns starfishes have been exploding and as a result the corals are in more danger than ever. The starfish are responsible for causing 40 per cent of all coral damage, making them one of the biggest threats to the Great Barrier Reef today.

But hope is not lost for the coral reef. Scientists Matthew Dunbabin and Feras Dayoub created an autonomous robot called COTSbot to minimise crown-of-thorns starfish populations and rescue the reef.

The robot is equipped with a number of thrusters and stereoscopic cameras, allowing it to search for the venomous starfish and kill them. Matthew and Feras trained the COTSbot through various YouTube videos, as well as thousands of images of the starfish by divers currently doing manual injection of the starfish on the Great Barrier Reef.

The COTSbot was trained for six months, to the point where it can identify crown-of-thorns starfish on its own. Once the starfish has been identified, the robot then injects it with bile salts, a protein that kills the starfish. The COTSbot can inject up to two hundred starfish and remain in the water for up to eight hours. Scientists hope that the COTSbot will be able to help protect corals and save the Great Barrier Reef.

More information

New robot fights crown of thorns starfish
A robot’s eye view (video)

This article first appeared in Science by Email. Sign up to Science by Email to receive science news, activities and quizzes. It’s free!

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