Queensland researchers are close to completing work on an autonomous robot that will cruise the Great Barrier Reef and inject the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish with a toxic solution.
The starfish is no bigger than a dinner plate, but collectively it represents one of the biggest threats to the Great Barrier Reef, already destroying around 40 per cent of the reef from Cooktown to the Whitsundays.
The COTSBot underwater robot looks like a sophisticated remote control toy submarine.
But it has been designed to cruise around a designated area of coral reef, seeking out and destroying the predator crown-of-thorn starfish or COTS.
Using GPS technology and powerful thrusters, the robot is designed to cruise about a metre above the coral surface and using visual recognition technology, it will look for the pests.
When it sees one, an injector arm will shoot out and stab it. If the robot reaches its potential, it could be a big weapon in the fight for the reef.
The crown-of-thorns starfish is currently being tackled by a range of programs including water quality management, monitoring and eradication, where divers hunt out the predators and inject them with a toxic solution with a single shot.
QUT research fellow and developer of the robot, Dr Matt Dunbabin, said it was intended as a first responder system to beef up the existing program.
“We need a force multiplier that is actually going to make a difference on the reef, so they can scale it up and actually try and reduce the impact that this pest is having.”
The robot has been 10 years in development.
Dr Dunbabin said he had to wait for technology to catch up to the initial idea.
“It’s only in the last year that we’ve been able to really hit it hard and come up with a solution that we think can really make a difference,” he said.
The old method of killing the COTS required up to 10 injections for each starfish, but James Cook University has continued to develop the single-shot technology.
QUT researcher Dr Ferars Dayoub took on the task of training the COTSBot to pick out the pest from other sea life through the use of film and 3D-printed models.
“The system has seen thousands of images of COTS and not COTS and now it’s able to detect and decide which one is COTS and which one is not,” Dr Dayoub said.
Dr Dunbabin agreed that the detection was reliable.
Dr Dunbabin said trials would start on the Great Barrier Reef in September, but to begin with an operator will confirm that it has identified a crown-of-thorns starfish before it is allowed to inject.