Australia Hopes to Save the Great Barrier Reef with Starfish-Killing Assassin Robots

Contrary to what you may have heard, the Great Barrier Reef is not dead. Not yet, at least. It is dying. Thanks to massive bleaching since 1985, more than half of the reef’s coral has since been wiped out for good. However, a single starfish species has the potential to devastate the reef like never before. Scientists are hoping robots — remote-controlled, starfish-killing assassin robots — can help.

Crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) are ravaging what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef. According to a Nature journal report, the starfish negatively impact coral reefs more than disease, bleaching, and human intrusion combined. Although the species is native to the reef, it feeds on coral polyps. Recent events like floods and the washing of fertilizers into the ocean have increased the starfish’s food source, phytoplankton, causing the former’s numbers to reach epic proportions.

Crown of Thorns Starfish
Tobias Friedrich/Getty Images

For years, the most effective solution has been to send scuba divers to the reef to individually snuff out each starfish by hand. The divers inject around 10 milliliters of ox bile into each creature to slowly digest the animal from the inside, ultimately killing them within 24 hours. However, manually attacking each and every starfish along the world’s most extensive reef system is a costly, time-consuming, and ineffective way to manage the exploding population of COTS.

Like every modern-day problem, there may be a better solution in the form of technology. More specifically: assassin robot technology. The RangerBot (we can only assume their marketing budget wasn’t a priority) AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) is a state-of-the-art robotic system purpose-built to manage the COTS problem along the Great Barrier Reef. Like the divers before them, the robots use ox bile to kill each starfish, but they’re capable of carrying enough to poison to extinguish 200 starfish in a single eight-hour mission. Naturally, they’re also capable of safely venturing much deeper than a traditional diver.

RangerBot COTSbot starfish robot
QUT Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Initially, RangerBot, or COTSbot, was guided by a remote pilot using a standard tablet, but the devices have since been upgraded to work autonomously. Through high-tech, AI-powered software, the robots can detect and eliminate COTS with 99.4 percent accuracy. In an interview with Scientific American, Professor Matthew Dunbabin, who worked extensively on the project, claims the system is “now so good it even ignores our 3-D-printed decoys and targets only live starfish.”

North Queensland launched a single RangerBot earlier this month as part of a pilot program. Given the robot’s compact size, lightweight design, and ease of operation, the team behind the program is hoping to expand the release to cover the entire 1,400-mile reef. Eventually, the robots could be used to manage reefs around the world.

While it seems like a small gesture, you can do your part to help save our reefs by swimming or snorkeling with a reef-safe sunscreen.

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