Starfish that devastates the Great Barrier Reef to be hunted by 'Terminator-style' robot

The crown-of-thorns starfish is responsible for 40% of the loss of coral reef

Jess Staufenberg
Monday 07 September 2015 17:40 BST

The notorious crown-of-thorns starfish that is currently devastating the Great Barrier Reef now has a man-made predator - a robot that will administer it a lethal injection.

In a bid to stop the creeping advance of the spiny starfish, which are single-handedly responsible for 40% of the loss of reef coral, scientists have designed a 'Terminator'-style robot to eradicate it.

Called the "COTSbot", after the specimen it is targeting, the submarine-like robot has been conditioned through thousands of still images and videos of the reef to recognise the starfish among the coral.

After identifying the offending starfish - which itself has poisonous spines - the COTsbot extends a pneumatic injection arm to deliver a fatal dose of bile salts.

Its creator, Dr Matthew Dunbabin, from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, said the technology would be a huge help to human divers already trying to stop the starfish's advance in Australia.

"Human divers are doing an incredible job of eradicating this starfish from targeted sites but there just aren't enough divers to cover all the COTS hotspots across the Great Barrier Reef," Dr Dunbabin said.

“We see the COTSbot as a first responder for ongoing eradication programs - deployed to eliminate the bulk of COTS in any area, with divers following a few days later to hit the remaining COTS."

The technology, which looks like a small missile-shaped submarine with a folded arm under it, can search the reef independently for up to eight hours and deliver more than 200 lethal shots.

And if it is confused about what it sees, it takes a photo to be verified by a human, with the feedback then being incorporated into the robot's memory bank.

Dr Dayoub, another roboticist from the university, said the robot was a remarkable achievement given the many colours and varying degrees of visibility of the seafloor.

"Its computer system is backed by some serious computational power, so COTSbot can think for itself in the water," he said in the press release.

The invention rests on an earlier breakthrough by the James Cook University which made it possible to kill a crown of thorns starfish with a single injection.

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