The Australian Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has developed a world ‘first’ – a robot developed to find and control the Great Barrier Reef’s crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), said to be responsible for the reef’s decline.

The COTSbot has been built with stereoscopic cameras to give it depth perception, five thrusters to maintain stability, GPS and pitch-and-roll sensors and a unique pneumatic injection arm to deliver a fatal dose of bile salts to the COTS, which are estimated to be responsible for 40% of the reef’s total decline in coral cover.

“Human divers are doing an incredible job of eradicating this starfish from targeted sites but there just aren't enough divers to cover all the COTS hotspots across the Great Barrier Reef," said Dr Dunbabin, creator of the robot. "We see the COTSbot as a first responder for ongoing eradication programs - deployed to eliminate the bulk of COTS in any area, with divers following a few days later to hit the remaining COTS.”

Designed to search the reef for up to eight hours at a time, the autonomous underwater vehicle can deliver more than 200 lethal shots.

"The COTSbot becomes a real force multiplier for the eradication process the more of them you deploy - imagine how much ground the programs could cover with a fleet of 10 or 100 COTSbots at their disposal, robots that can work day and night and in any weather condition,” he added.

Key to the robot is its new state-of-the-art computer vision and machine learning system. QUT roboticists have spent the last six months developing and training the robot to recognise COTS among coral, using thousands of still images of the reef and videos taken by COTS-eradicating divers.

The roboticists believe COTSbot is the first autonomous underwater vehicle to be equipped with an injection system.

It's also designed to operate exclusively within a metre of the seafloor, one of the most dynamic and challenging environments for any robot.

The QUT roboticists will take COTSbot to the Great Barrier Reef later this month to trial it on living targets, which will be verified by a human before the robot is allowed to inject it.

The COTSbot is planned to be working the reef autonomously in December.

Funding is now needed to scale up the manufacturing and deployment of the COTSbot.

By Rachael Doyle