by Elton Gomes
Researchers in Australia have developed a drone robot in efforts to save the Great Barrier Reef from depletion. Researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have said that their robot reef protector has been trained to detect the crown-of-thorns starfish with 99% accuracy, and it can inject the coral-eating starfish with vinegar or bile salts, both deadly to the invasive predator.
The crown-of-thorns starfish has been known to cause depletion of the reef by eating coral in mass outbreaks. It has been recognised as one of the three major threats to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, along with coral bleaching and cyclone damage. To counter this threat, Queensland researchers came up with the world’s first robot to administer a lethal injection.
The robot is known as The RangerBot and is equipped with a vision system that allows it to “see” underwater while it is operated using a tablet. The RangerBot is more advanced than its earlier prototype – the “COTSbot.”
Professor Matthew Dunbabin, from the QUT, said that the robot uses real-time vision to navigate and identify starfish. “Usually everybody uses acoustics to do that, that is very expensive way of navigating under water,” he said, ABC reported.
Professor Dunbabin said that RangerBot was not only an autonomous robot, but it could stay under water three times longer than a human diver and can operate under all weather conditions. “It’s an impressive piece of technology, [it’s] also deliberately low cost to allow production to be scaled up once the next level of operational testing is completed and all the necessary approvals are in place,” he said, the Guardian reported.
Dunbabin added that the team hoped to eventually launch RangerBot up the length of the 2,300-kilometre long reef. RangerBot comes fitted with real-time guidance, which means that it can avoid obstacles by moving in any direction.
The robot is equipped with an eight-hour battery life and computer vision capabilities – thereby allowing it to monitor and map several areas of the reef at scales that were not previously possible. “RangerBot is the world’s first underwater robotic system designed specifically for coral reef environments, using only robot-vision for real-time navigation, obstacle avoidance and complex science missions,” Dunbabin said, as per an AFP report.
The Reef HQ Aquarium will begin by immersing just one RangerBot into the ocean. The researchers have designed an affordable bot so that more such robots can be immersed later.
A team of only six such robots could cover the entire length of the reef 14 times in one year at an operating cost of about $720,000. On the other hand, six human divers could cover only half the reef in that time at a cost of $1.44 million.
How do starfish pose a threat to the Great Barrier Reef
On January 5, 2018, ABC reported that thousands of crown-of-thorns starfish were known to have eaten their way through coral in a major outbreak at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.
Deadly starfish were feasting on several parts of the reef, which is already facing threats from rising ocean temperatures. Crown-of-thorns starfish have already been detected on 37 sections of the southerly Swain Reef, more than 60 miles offshore. “Whenever coral in any location in the Great Barrier Reef is threatened or stressed, it is of concern,” Fred Nucifora, a spokesperson for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), told the New York Times.
Although the cause of the outbreak is unknown, one hypothesis suggests that currents were bringing nutrient-rich water from the deep sea up into the shelf, and this correlates with the growth of starfish larvae.
The GBRMPA had confirmed that it was working towards finding a solution since last year. Nucifora said that monitoring crews were sent to the area to review the problem. The Australian government also earmarked 11.2 million dollars to finance an additional control vessel for the park.
Current status of the reef
The Great Barrier Reef has not been in the best of health, with warm temperatures adding to its problems. A steep decline in coral cover right across the Great Barrier Reef has been recorded as a phenomenon that “has not been observed in the historical record”, as per a new report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). The latest results, released in June 2018, elaborate on how major bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 have impacted different sections of the reef.
“More intense disturbances mean greater damage to reefs, so recovery must take longer if the growth rate remains the same. At the same time, the intervals between acute disturbance events are decreasing and chronic stresses such as high turbidity and high ocean temperatures can slow rates of recovery,” the report said, according to the Guardian.
How can robots help in saving oceans
Conservation group COBI uses a drone to identify spawning sites for grouper and snapper in the Caribbean in efforts to prevent overfishing. While local fishers are being trained to dive and monitor the sites, the group says that a drone can be used “to document the deeper sites where we can’t dive.”
Researchers from MIT came up with the Soft Robotic Fish, or SoFi, which is a hypnotic machine. SoFi was initially remote-controlled, but future versions could use machine vision to lock onto individual fish and follow them around. Such a robot could help scientists in studying schooling dynamics, or to monitor the health of fish populations in unhealthy oceans.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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