Some killer robots are a good thing. While our planet experiences what many scientists are referring to as the 6th Mass Extinction, certain species are actually doing too well. As climates change and ecosystems become unbalanced, species such as the crown-of-thorns starfish move into new habitats and threaten native organisms with overwhelming colonization by an invasive species. Fortunately, researchers at Queensland University of Technology have developed a high-tech solution to this biological problem: an autonomous submarine robot that scours coral reefs for starfish to kill.

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Known as Cotsbot, the underwater drone possess a vision system which it uses to identify its starfish prey. “The core of the detection is a state-of-the-art computer vision and machine learning system,” says Queensland University of Technology researcher Matthew Dunbabin. “This system has been trained to recognise COTS [crown-of-thorns starfish] from among a vast range of corals using thousands of still images of the reef and videos taken by COTS-eradicating divers.” The method of killing involves the administration of a lethal injection to the starfish. After the local population of starfish is wiped out, divers then move into the area and dispose of the corpses.

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Cotsbot is currently being test-driven in Moreton Bay, Brisbane, an environment in which there are no crown-of-thorns starfish to hunt. However, once the Cotsbot’s navigational capabilities are refined, it will be deployed to coral reefs heavily affected by the crown-of-thorns starfish. “Over the next five months we plan to progressively increase the level of autonomy the robot is allowed, leading to autonomous detection and injection of the starfish,” says Dunbabin.

There are several theories as to why outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish overpopulation have become more frequent. Over-collecting of tritons, a predator of the starfish, overfishing of other starfish predators, and the decline in predator population due to habitat destruction are all possible causes. The runoff of nutrients from land into the ocean has also been proposed as providing the fuel for an explosion of starfish. In balanced ecosystems, the crown-of-thorns starfish serve the useful ecological function of destroying fast growing coral so as to allow more slow growing varieties to flourish. However, to defeat these out of control sea monsters, killer robots may be our only hope.


Images via Science in Public and NOAA