Don’t be afraid of the killer robot that lurks in the ocean. It is loaded with advanced cameras and sensors and a pneumatic arm to help the robot deliver fatal doses of poison to its target. But this underwater autonomous vehicle was designed with good intentions: to protect the Great Barrier Reef from an invasive species called crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS). Australia’s iconic reef is so large that it can be seen from space, but scientists are concerned that the reef’s coral cover has declined over the last three decades. Several factors are contributing to the degradation, but the spiky starfish is the top culprit.
To protect the reef, environmental roboticist Dr. Matthew Dunbabin, of Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT), developed a robot called COTSbot. It is equipped with stereoscopic cameras for depth perception, five thrusters to maintain stability, pitch-and-roll sensors, and GPS to help it navigate the waters. The robot can patrol the reef for up to eight hours at a time, looking for the invasive starfish, which it identifies through its computer vision and machine learning system.
Another QUT researcher, Dr. Feras Dayoub, used thousands of photos and videos of the reef to develop software that gives the robot the ability to recognize COTS. When it identifies one, the robot’s pneumatic arm injects the starfish with a fatal dose of a natural chemical. The robot can think for itself, but if it is unsure, it will take a photo of a suspected COTS to be verified by a human. The feedback will then be incorporated into the robot’s memory bank, so it will get smarter with more experience.
Now that it has been designed, the COTSbot is being tested in the ocean, which is a dynamic environment that is especially challenging for navigation, imaging, and object identification. Dr. Dunbabin tells In Compliance that trials are now underway. He says, “We have successfully completed phase one of the COTSbot’s reef trials, collecting data of live COTS in the wild from its own vision system. We are currently conducting phase two of the reef trials, closing the loop on the robot’s detection system (vision system) and its injection system, getting the two systems working together to accomplish its task. Testing will continue over the next six weeks to fully assess and calibrate its state-of-the-art sensors.”