New killer robot set to destroy pests on the Great Barrier Reef

By Victoria Ticha | October 24, 2016

Our best bet for combating devastating crown-of-thorns star fish could be a robot called COTSbot.

THE WORLD’S FIRST robot to control marine pests has completed trials on the Great Barrier Reef, successfully hunting down and killing the coral destroying crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS).

The robot known as COTSbot is the first in the world designed to eradicate the COTS responsible for around 40 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef’s total loss of coral.

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) said the trials proved the underwater robot vehicle could successfully navigate through difficult reefs, be used detect COTS with remarkable accuracy and deliver fatal doses of bile salts using its innovative injection system.

“It’s always great to see a robot you built let off the leash, so to speak, doing the job it’s intended for,” said Dr Matthew Dunbabin, researcher from QUT’s Institute for Future Environments and Science and Engineering Faculty.

COTSbot

Image: Richard Fitzpatrick / QUT

The trial involved securing the COTSbot to a WiFi-enabled boat so it could beam data back to researchers who looked through the robot’s cameras and verified deadly COTS before approving the lethal injections.

“It’s quite a challenge to pack a full-service vision and machine learning system into a very small robot in the field. Without a link to the outside world, all processing is done on board COTSbot,” said Matthew.

Once the robot could perform the job well under human supervision it was set to do the work autonomously.

“We’re very happy with COTSbot’s computer vision and machine learning system,” said Dr Feras Dayoub, also a researcher from QUT’s Centre for Robotic Vision.

 “When it comes to accurate detection, the goal is to avoid any false positives – that is, the robot mistaking another creature for a COTS. Our detection is extremely precise – it’s consistently reliable,” Matthew explained.

The COTSbot is designed to support current human-powered COTS control methods which involve a general sweeping of an area for other known pests and leaving the hard-to-reach starfish for specialist divers.

The researchers have already started working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to transform COTSbot into the new RangerBot – a multipurpose, multifunction robot for monitoring the range of issues facing coral reefs including coral bleaching, water quality, pest species, pollution and siltation.

The foundation is contending for the $750,000 Google Impact Challenge prize. If it wins, the funds will be used to develop the next generation of affordable robots to manage coral reefs.