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Australia unleashes starfish hunter-killer robots onto the Great Barrier Reef


Bleaching and new invasive species like the Crown of Thorns wreak havoc on the Barrier Reef, but technology is helping conservationists fight back.


Climate change, pollution, invasive species and unsustainable fishing practices have blighted the world’s largest coral structure for decades but there’s now an increasing amount of hope for at least some areas of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And an intelligent robot is just one of the increasing numbers of emerging technologies that are coming to its rescue.

Researchers have developed a robot that seeks out and kills one of the leading cause of coral loss – the Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), arguably one of the most damaging and unstoppable invasive species ever found on the reef. This starfish is responsible for 42% of the reef’s total decline in coral cover.


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Human divers try to eradicate them by administering lethal injections by hand, but as co-researcher Matthew Dunbabin points out, “there just aren’t enough divers to cover all the COTS hotspots across the Great Barrier Reef.”

The robot, named COTSbot, is equipped with cameras, GPS, five thrusters, an injection arm, and sensors that allow it to roam the reef for up to eight hours at a time, using its extendable arm to deliver more than 200 lethal shots of poisonous bile salts. The injected starfish die within 24 hours.


Using COTSbot to identify the Crown of Thorns starfish


Researchers spent months developing the machine-learning system and training the autonomous underwater vehicle to recognize the starfish accurately by showing it images of COTS and non-COTS and the researchers claim COTSbot identified its target 99.4% of the time in laboratory tests, even ignoring 3D printed decoys.

Scientists have been turning to robots and, in some cases, even drones, to overcome the limitation of human divers, get a better understanding of the sea, and boost conservation efforts and as we’ve written about previously it looks like robots are a conservationists best friend.

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