The crown-of-thorns starfish is a beautiful creature. They’re abundant throughout Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and in some locations, they’re too abundant. When their populations are in the normal range, they play a vital role in a reef’s ecosystem. However, whenever their numbers grow too large, they can decimate a stretch of reef by consuming the vital coral. The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble, and such population booms of crown-of-thorns starfish like described above are a big part of the issue (around 40 percent of the total reef decline, to be exact).
In 2016, Queensland University of Technology brought a new weapon to the fight against the starfish—a robot whose single purpose in life is to seek out and destroy the crown-of-thorns.
The Crown-of-Thorns Starfish robot (COTSbot) can stay submerged for eight hours at a time and is equipped with GPS, thrusters, cameras and sensors that help control the robot’s pitch and roll. The COTSbot is also equipped with a pneumatic arm that can inject a lethal poison into the starfish once they’re found. One dive can bring about the death of as many as 200 starfish.
This year, the same team from the Queensland University of Technology developed an even smaller version of the COTSbot that is more agile in the water and able to perform other skills. Researchers monitor the actions of the robots, but the devices themselves are completely autonomous, capable of learning and making decisions on their own. One benefit of this feature is that the robots are able to learn and distinguish features of many species of starfish, ensuring that they’re only targeting the crown-of-thorns.
While the newer, smaller COTSbot is still in the testing phase, researchers hope to not only reverse some of the effects of the damaging starfish along throughout the Great Barrier Reef but also deploy the robots along other reefs throughout the world in the future.
A similar robotic deployment headed by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is underway to hunt and harvest lionfish, another damaging species throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean.