Giant autonomous killer robots are set to storm Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, injecting victims with bile salts to save the environment. The COTSbots are designed to seek out and kill the crown-of-thorns starfish, which is responsible for the loss of around 40 percent of the reef’s coral.

“Its always great to see a robot you built let off the leash, so to speak, doing the job its intended for,” Dr Matthew Dunbabin, researcher from the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Institute for Future Environments and Science and Engineering Faculty, told Australian Geographic in a report published Monday.

The team is now competing for a $750,000 Google Impact Challenge prize. If the team wins, the money will be used to create even larger killer bots, known as RangerBots, that will also monitor reef conditions, checking the water quality and coral bleaching status.

The bots first started trials in September 2015, automating a job previously reserved for human swimmers. The problem was, the humans weren’t very good at injecting bile salt: There was too many of them to complete the task in time.

COTSbot in action.
COTSbot in action.

“It’s quite a challenge to pack a full-service vision and machine learning system into a very small robot in the field,” Dunbabin said in a statement. “Without a link to the outside world, all processing is done on board COTSbot.”

Initially, the bots worked under human supervision, with a researcher on a wifi connected boat, confirming that the bot had identified a crown-of-thorns starfish before it delivered the blow. Eventually, though, the researchers were confident that they could remove the human element and leave the bots to their own devices.

“When it comes to accurate detection, the goal is to avoid any false positives, that is, the robot mistaking another creature for a COTS,” Dunbabin told Australian Geographic. “Our detection is extremely precise – it’s consistently reliable.”

Photos via COTSbot/QUT, COTSbot QUT