While many reports have pointed to man-made climate change as a leading threat to coral reefs around the world, lionfish are another source of concern when it comes to protecting these ecosystems from further damage. Due to their poisonous spines, they are also a threat to nearby fish populations and the divers that try to catch them in an effort to protect corals. Given these dangers, a team of student researchers has come up with an autonomous, spear-wielding robot that could take out these predators without putting the reefs at further risk.
As explained by Engadget, the robot was created by student researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts as an autonomous alternative to human-controlled robots that could pose a risk to coral reef systems. Instead of relying on someone to control it, the robot makes use of “computer vision” and is trained by exposure to “thousands” of photos. It comes armed with eight spears with detachable, floating tips that allow any lionfish it kills to float to the surface and attaches to another submersible robot once deployed to monitor coral reefs.
In addition to the above features, the WPI researchers’ robot is designed to work in the ocean, as its body is resistant to saltwater corrosion. In order to ensure that the spear tips remain buoyant after usage, the machine also includes an airtight chamber as one of its components.
“The goal is to be able to toss the robot over the side of a boat and have it go down to the reef, plot out a course, and begin its search,” said WPI Robotics Engineering Program associate director Craig Putnam, who helped advise the students while they created the robot.
“It needs to set up a search pattern and fly along the reef, and not run into it, while looking for the lionfish. The idea is that the robots could be part of the environmental solution.”
In a press release announcing the new robot, WPI explained that lionfish have become a “serious problem” in the Caribbean and western Atlantic and, as described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the “poster child for invasive species.” As there aren’t any other predators located outside their natural habitat, lionfish populations have been multiplying in recent years, thus making them even bigger threats to the world’s coral reefs, which are already at risk due to various man-made factors, including overfishing, pollution, and climate change.
“I’ve seen the massive devastation caused by these fish and it really made me want to work on this project. We felt like we could create some change in the world,” said project team member Brandon Kelly.
Although the WPI robot has the potential to be effective in protecting coral reefs from the threat of lionfish, there is still some work that needs to be done on the machine before it can be considered ready for deployment. According to Engadget, a second team of students will be working on a navigation system that could further train the robot to work autonomously by allowing it to create a three-dimensional search grid.