Google has funded an underwater drone that will hunt down the starfish killing the Great Barrier Reef

QUTThe RangerBot

  • Australian scientists have built an underwater robot to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
  • RangerBot will be able to identify predatory crown-of-thorns starfish and kill them without damaging the rest of the marine ecosystem.
  • QUT used $750,000 in funding Google to develop the “world first” drone.

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have created an underwater robot they hope will save the Great Barrier Reef.

The drone is designed to monitor reef health and accurately identify and kill crown-of-thorns starfish, which are devastating one of the seven wonders of the natural world.

It comes amid a push from scientists to develop a system capable of managing the crown of thorns starfish outbreak.

According to research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, coral cover between 1985 and 2012 declined by about 50%, and almost half of that decline was due to the coral-eating starfish.

QUT’s robotics team, in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, built the RangerBot — a low-cost “robo reef protector” – after securing $750,000 funding from Google.

The Google Impact Challenge helps not-for-profit organisations develop technologies that can help to tackle the world’s biggest social challenges.

The design is the evolution of the team’s COTSbot, built in 2016, but designed to be smaller, less expensive and more nimble in the water.

QUTThe RangerBot

“RangerBot will be designed to stay underwater almost three times longer than a human diver, gather vastly more data, map expansive underwater areas at scales not previously possible, and operate in all conditions and all times of the day or night,” QUT says.

“Unlike current single-purpose marine robots – which are manual, expensive and based on acoustic technologies – the RangerBot will be built with innovative vision-based technologies.”

The robot has a high-tech vision system which allows it to “see” underwater, and is operated using a tablet which takes just 15 minutes to learn how to use.

Today, QUT Professor Matthew Dunbabin says after almost two years of developing RangerBot, it’s ready to be put to the test.

“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.

“This multifunction ocean drone can monitor a wide range of issues facing coral reefs including coral bleaching, water quality, pest species, pollution and siltation. It can help to map expansive underwater areas at scales not previously possible, making it a valuable tool for reef research and management.”

He added: “We’ve ‘trained’ RangerBot to detect crown-of-thorns starfish – and only these coral-destroying starfish – in much the same way as people learn to differentiate between various forms of sea life. Using real time computer vision processed on board the robot, RangerBot can identify these deadly starfish with 99.4% accuracy.

“Once the identification is confirmed, RangerBot can instigate an injection which is fatal for the crown-of-thorns starfish, but doesn’t affect anything else on the reef,” he said.

Here’s a look at the drone in action:

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