Robotic Assassin to the rescue: How new technology will help the Great Barrier Reef

By: Ashley Gustafson


Vast, breathtaking, and vibrant it is no wonder that The Great Barrier Reef one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Its whole being encompasses the variety and essence of life on earth. Like many coral reef ecosystems around the world today, it too is suffering from various sources of stress and degradation. One of these stressors is the crown-of-thorns starfish. The species alone is suspected to be the cause of up to 40% of the magnificent reef’s decline in coral cover this decade.

The Great Barrier Reef is found right off the coast of northeastern Australia. Scientists from Queensland University of Technology have prepared a plan to combat the expanding starfish pest. The scientists are prepared to deploy ab autonomous, or independently acting, robot they call COTSbot (after the crown-of-thorns starfish). The small submersible machine has cameras, five thruster devices, and a GPS system that allows it to seek, find, and kill crown-of-thorns starfish. The robot is able to do this by using a pneumatic, referring to using gas or pressurized air, arm to deliver a lethal injection thus killing the starfish.

Crown-of-thorns starfish

What may sound simple has been a 6 month project for the scientists. The technology is possible by using a crown-of-thorns starfish detecting software developed from thousands of images and videos of the Great Barrier Reef itself. Using the software, the robot is able to identify and destroy the harmful starfish without bothering other reef life. The robot is fully independent making it an ideal piece of technology. However, if unsure of a target, the robot can send an image to be further examined by a human who can determine if the image is a target or not. The lethal injection is able to kill the pesky starfish in one direct shot from the robot. The injection was created by James Cook University in Queensland.

While very exciting, this technology is still very new and initially only one robot will be used. It may be the only one being used at first; the submersible can search for up to eight hours and deliver 200 lethal shots at a single instant. If the robot is successful the plan is to create a team of 10 to even 100 submersibles that will be able to patrol the Great Barrier Reef day and night and in all weather conditions. This means that they have the potential to replace human divers. While human divers, are doing a fantastic job of removing starfish from the reef right now, the potential of many more robots with very few limitations that’s sole purpose is to eradicate the dangerous starfish is very exciting. Human divers can only hit so many spots for so many hours a day. The robots will be able to cruise all the hot spots for longer periods of time.

With that being said, the robots will take on the bulk of the lethal injections but human divers may still be necessary to follow up on the remaining starfish that are able to elude the submersibles. The first ocean trials were completed this week in Moreton Bay. The goal was to test the robot’s mechanical parts and navigation system. The plan is to continue active trials later this month with a human helping to identify the crown-of-thorns starfish at first. It will be interesting to see if the robot will employ the vinegar injection route or perhaps some other means of killing the COTS.  The ultimate goal is to have the robot independently assassinating the damaging starfish by this December. If everything goes according to plan, this new submersible assassin could be the hero that saves the Great Barrier Reef.