Starfish Hunter-Killer Robot Aims to Restore Balance to the Great Barrier Reef

The robot that will execute Order 66 for sea stars.

Meet COTSbot, a robot designed for one purpose: To hunt down and destroy crown-of-thorns sea stars. The population of these coral-polyp-munchers has exploded on the Great Barrier Reef, and the animals have been blamed for destroying up to 40 percent of the reef’s cover.

The robot, developed by Queensland University of Technology, can deliver 200 lethal (to the sea stars) injections of bile salts over an eight-hour period. Previously, human swimmers had been tasked with culling where the animals were too populous, but the by-hand program was overwhelmed by the sheer number of sea stars. QUTmedia

This robot is, creators say, more efficient: Governed by detection software, the robot can also send images of potential sea stars back to a human for confirmation. “We’ve now trained the robot using thousands of images of COTS collected on the reef and the system is proving itself incredibly robust at detecting the COTS,” software designer and Queensland University of Technology professor Feras Dayoub said in a statement. COTSbot is prepping for a final trial phase, where all sea stars will be verified before it moves in for the kill.

It remains to be seen if COTSbot will be closer to Darth Vader than OG Terminator on the elimination scale: The scientists envision using the robot as a vanguard force in areas heavily seeded with sea stars, and then sending in divers as a mop-up crew.

The COTSbot points to two truisms of conservation: One, humans are great at upending ecosystems (the reason there are so many of these sea stars in the first place is likely due to fertilizer runoff feeding the young); and two, that although animals are not inherently evil — the sea stars have no concept of overpopulation — saving ecosystems increasingly boils down to killing one species to favor another.

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