Innovation That Matters

Starfish-tracking eco-bots help protect vulnerable coral reef

QUT researchers have developed a robot that uses real-time image monitoring software to protect coral population on the Great Barrier Reef.

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When an environment becomes vulnerable, acting quickly can be the difference between preservation and decimation. Given the expenses and logistics of human operatives, conservationists are turning to robotics for environmental protection — researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have developed an autonomous underwater vehicle for protecting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The robot trawls near the sea bottom searching for Crown-Of-Thorns Starfish (COTS) — hence the name COTSbot. The starfish feed on corals that make up much of the reef’s biodiversity, but in times of population outbreak, they become a major source of coral reef mortality, which affects fish that inhabit nearby, too. The COTSbot is equipped with real-time image monitoring software that the team trained to detect COTS. When unsure whether an object is a COTS, the COTSbot sends an image that requires a human to provide confirmation — the COTSbot then learns from the answer. Upon finding the starfish, the COTSbot is capable of delivering a lethal single-dose salt injection via a pneumatic arm. Currently, human divers make lengthy excursions to eradicate the COTS one-by-one. The creator, Dr Matthew Dunbabin hopes the robot will make a significant contribution to population control: “Imagine how much ground the programs could cover with a fleet of 10 or 100 COTSbots at their disposal, robots that can work day and night and in any weather condition.”

Eco-bots have the potential to protect environments in ways human can’t. However, it will be necessary to implement strict regulations for robot use to minimize any unknown environmental impacts or misuse. Could similar robots also be used for land-based environmental monitoring?



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