Robot Superheroes to Save Great Barrier Reef

A “killer” underwater robot will be deployed to protect Australia’s endangered Great Barrier Reef after successful trials.

The RangerBot, measuring 75cm and weighing 15kg, will enter the waters in northern Queensland tasked with identifying and destroying crown of thorns starfish that threaten the health of the famous coral reef.

The starfish, which eats coral in mass outbreaks, constitute a significant threat to the reef along with coral bleaching and cyclone damage.

The RangerBot was developed by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in collaboration with Google and can detect the deadly starfish with 99.4% accuracy through real-time computer vision processed on board.

Once identified, the RangerBot can then instigate a fatal injection into the starfish, destroying them but not impacting anything else on the reef.

Professor Matt Dunbabin, one of the researchers who developed RangerBot, said the idea was for the device to become the “drone of the sea” by going beyond its role on the Barrier Reef and having multiple environmental and commercial applications.

He said that RangerBot had the potential to revolutionize the way we manage oceans while having a particular purpose for the Barrier Reef.

"We've developed a really nice piece of software that is designed specifically to only find starfish, and it is based on artificial intelligence," Dunbabin told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“If we have any doubt we won’t even inject the starfish.”

The robot can cruise underwater for up to eight hours before it needs a recharge, and has full freedom of movement, enabling it to reach spots that are inaccessible to divers.

A tablet device operates the robot, while its data collection abilities open up the potential for extensive mapping and monitoring of the oceans.

RangerBot technology offers a significant upgrade to sonar-based sensing, which is more expensive and not as accurate.

“We’ve turned [sonar-based testing] on its head, and it does what a diver does, only using underwater vision," said Dunbabin.

“We consider RangerBot to be the world’s first robot in that it has been specifically designed to operate in coral reef environments and uses vision only.

“By doing that we can make it significantly cheaper than most traditional underwater systems.”

The RangerBot design won AUD 750,000 in the Google Impact Challenge in 2016, with the funds used to make the device a reality.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has run several trials, and Professor Dunbabin said he and his team of researchers are continually finding new uses.