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Watch: The High-Tech Protector of the Great Barrier Reef

  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • September 11, 2015 at 10:19 AM

It looks like something out of an underwater computer game, but the video above could be the key to reining in one of the biggest threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

High numbers of the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) are responsible for around 40% of the reef’s total decline in coral, devouring it faster than it can grow. The native, venomous invertebrates are spreading so quickly that reef protection groups have struggled to keep up with them.

But that could soon change thanks to the development of a robot designed to seek-and-destroy COTS to get the population back under control.

The COTSbot – which was created by Queensland University of Technology roboticists – detects COTS through the use of depth perception cameras, GPS and pitch-and-roll sensors and stereoscopic cameras that give it depth perception. It has five thrusters to help maintain stability in the water and help it launch towards the COTS, where it can then deliver its fatal dose of bile salts to the COTS using a unique pneumatic injection arm.

Previously, human divers would control COTS populations by locating them and injecting them by hand, but COTSbot creator Dr Matthew Dunbabin says it’s now hard to keep up with the starfish.

“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,” he says in a press statement.

“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 COTSbot had its first sea trials in early September 2015, with plans for it to work across the reef from December onwards.

Dr Dunbabin says it’s designed to search the reef for up to eight hours at a time, and can deliver more than 200 lethal shots per session.

“The COTSbot becomes a real force multiplier for the eradication process the more of them you deploy – 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.”

While currently the scourge of the Great Barrier Reef, the crown-of-thorns starfish is actually native and can play a vital role to the marine environment in other circumstances.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority explains that on healthy coral reefs, it tends to “feed on the fastest growing corals such as staghorns and plate corals, allowing slower growing coral species to form colonies. This helps increase coral diversity.”

“Cyclic outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish occur approximately every 17 years. There have been four documented outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef since the 1960s, with the latest starting in 2010.”

It’s hoped that this new robot will fight off the current outbreak and protect the reef from future surges in COTS numbers so that coral can grow more freely

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