Starfish-Killing Robot May Save the Great Barrier Reef

By Carl Engelking | September 3, 2015 2:04 pm


Scientists have designed a robot that kills with the mechanical efficiency you’d expect from a soulless hunk of metal, but there’s no reason to be concerned.

The COTSbot will soon be set loose to wreak havoc, but for a noble cause: to save the struggling Great Barrier Reef. You see, the reef is under siege by hordes of Crown of Thorns Starfish, prickly menaces that destroy coral, which serves as the foundation for the world’s most complex underwater ecosystem. COTSbot is coral’s new defender.

Killing Spree

Five decades ago, scientists sounded the alarm about the destructive powers of these spiny starfish. They tend to attack reefs in waves, and there have been three such Crown of Thorns outbreaks since the 1960s. Right now, we’re in the midst of a fourth explosion of these creatures. According to scientists, the damage inflicted by starfish swarms on coral reefs is second only to cyclones.

To this point the job of controlling the starfish has fallen upon human divers, who kill starfish by injecting them with a solution of cattle bile. Hundreds of thousands of starfish have been killed in this manner. But the Great Barrier Reef is big, and there aren’t enough divers to wipe the stubborn starfish out.

A New Direction

COTSbot to the rescue. The robot doesn’t need a lunch break, it doesn’t have a family, and it doesn’t mind working for free. Two scientists from Queensland University of Technology designed an underwater drone that can pull an 8-hour shift and wipe out about 200 starfish in each shift. The robot uses a proboscis-like instrument with a retractable needle to pierce starfish and inject its toxic payload.

COTS is loaded with programs that help it distinguish starfish from innocent creatures. After the robot does its work, human divers will sweep in later to take care of any starfish that survived the wrath of the robot.

Scientist plan to send COTSbot on trial missions later this month, and they plan to work on refining the bot’s navigation systems during these test runs. Eventually, a fleet of 10 to 100 COTSbots will be put into action on the reef.

With any luck, the days of the Crown of Thorns starfish may be numbered.


Photo credits: Starfish:Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock; crosshairs: blojfo/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: robots, sustainability
  • Gary Bruce

    Please don’t use the word “Starfish”. They are not fish. Sea star is the more proper term. On the other hand, a Sea horse is not a horse. Oh well. Forget I even posted this! :)

    • Roger

      Please don’t use the term “Sea star”. They are not stars. Oh well. Forget I even posted this! (:

      • queenidog

        good one Rog…

    • eetom

      Hot dog is not a dog. Sea hare is not a hare. Shooting star is not a star. Doughnut is not a nut. Lady’s fingers are not fingers. Human may be a woman. Woman is not a man…

      • OWilson

        Climate “science” is not a real science. It is a statistical modeling endeavor.

        Well, at least we know a hamburger is made of ham.

        • Paul Griese

          Just like you are a phony who has no scientific occupational background at all. Google is the extent of any research you do. Global Warming Deniers stay indoors….A LOT!

        • Paul Griese

          Oh, oh! Warning! Warning! Above, is an example of one who relishes pseudo science! Comparing Climate Science to Weather Forecasting! A treasured tactic of Global Warming Deniers. The two sciences are different, using different resources. Climate Prediction does not use weather details such as Jet Stream, High and Low Pressure areas…etc, items of day-to-day systems. Climate predictions, over the long term, does not use those short term details. Climate Science predicts climate averages and uses a lot more than just modeling. Long term observation and also research outdoors, actual work, are involved. Google is the only tool of the GWDers!

          • OWilson

            I got almost the same flame when I opined that a chiropractor was not a real physician.

            Astrologers share the same sensitivity :)

          • Paul Griese

            Well, you got chiropractor and astrologers correct. But you forgot acupuncture! I won’t bore you with the 24 links I have to long term climate science (the one about Vietnam’s rice crop is very interesting!). So I will flame you with this: My occupation is in Zoology, Ecology, Conservation Research (animal and plant), Biology, I was a Computer System Administrator, additionally I worked in Network/Date Operations for Exxon Mobil Houston (so I know they are navigating in waters that used to be ice, but is ice no more because it melted years ago!). I used to work for the San Diego Zoo Institute For Conservation Research. I worked in the Mojave Desert for them. I have met and worked with people in scientific disciplines all over the world. You can read my articles on the Zoo’s web site, I am published! What cred do you have? The world is waiting to know why they should listen to you, Mr. O! I am always interested to learn the scientific background of GWDers. But, political-mindset and greed is always their true motivations. Oh, by the way, there are multiple stress factors on coral reefs. Warming waters are one. A significant reason (among others) is by Human Pollution. Cheers! Geez I should publish this one, too!

          • OWilson

            You sound very, very important!

            Me? I just have “cred” as you call it, from watching political and religious “leaders”, their true believers and enablers mess up the world and kill millions of my fellow humans in the process, in the last century and this one.

            They were all, and still are, absolutely sure that they, and only they, were right!

            Dissenting opinions not necessary :)

            If you think I’m being melodramatic, just today, the “Climate Scientists” were demanding that Obama should prosecute skeptics, under the RICO Statutes.

            No need for a link, as I assume someone as brilliant as you has access to the news of the day :)

            But why do I assume you are not rich? or have little common sense?

            Something to do with the number of “I”s in your almost illiterate post. :)

            Who publishes mish-mash gobbledegook like that?

            Do tell! :)

          • Paul Griese

            oooo – somebody needs a nap! I rest my case. You’ve got nothing. You fell for it. By the way, you used the word “I’ twice in just one sentence alone in your initial post above. Not to mention in many of your other rants throughout these blogs whenever you try to defend yourself. But, hey, what can I say! I am important. Everybody and every animal is!

          • OWilson

            Except star fish, apparently. :)

            And, zoos?

            I guess you loved the power over all those caged animals.

            It’s an old thread, but you just made fool post of the day, maybe the year!.

            Come back anytime :)

  • OWilson

    “According to scientists, the damage inflicted by starfish swarms on coral reefs is second only to cyclones.”

    No mention of evil man or “climate change”. That’s a relief!

    I’m sure that if these social and biology engineers, are successful in killing them off, we can always bring in WWF to save and repopulate the reefs with these “endangered” species.

    That way the coral reef research budget remains intact.

    • Susan F. Thompson

      Humans, I understand are responsible for some of the destruction of the reefs. So just be careful anyway when diving/snorkeling. LOL

      • OWilson

        The corals have been around longer than humans.

        They apparently know more about survival than we do. :)

        We have too many folks that “believe” they have the power to change 3.5 billion years of evolution (corals) and weather (climate) all In their own special lifetimes!

        They can do a lot of damage, if they get into power.

    • WestofLeft

      You’re right about interfering with natural processes. And the niche the stars are filling is the necessary destruction of corals that have existed for thousands of years. They are invasive, and invading because of some condition that did not exist in, for instance, 1990. You should get those facts straight, because the invasion of the stars has a cause, and you don’t know what it is.

      • OWilson

        There are natural fluctuations in species populations and their predators. There’s a whole branch of science devoted to it.

        The corals have been around a long longer than robotic starfish killers.

        Hope these toxins that are being injected into hundreds of thousands of these poor creatures, don’t find their way into the food chain.

        I predict that this “cure” will be worse than the perceived problem, and have unintended consequences, and collateral damage.

        (sort of like farmers industrial weed spraying)

        • WestofLeft

          This is an odd conversation. I agree there are often unintended consequences. I submit that the invasion by crown of thorns stars is one of them. And cures we come up with may indeed cause further problems down the line, but the life of the sea off the Australian coast is at stake.

          “The corals have been around a long [sic] longer than robotic starfish killers.”

          I suppose it was intended to be funny. And less funny is, that they are about NOT to be around much longer, along with their hundreds of thousands of attendant species.

          And loosely sort of getting the idea doesn’t serve you well:

          “Hope these toxins don’t find their way into the food chain”

          As you have probably noticed by reading more carefully, it is cattle bile we’re talking about.

          Already in the food chain, and not a toxin. Unless it’s injected into the center of a star’s body. Still not really a toxin. The article loosely calls it “toxic”, but that doesn’t change bile into arsenic.

          • OWilson

            Tell that to one of Mother Nature’s own creatures, the starfish :)

      • JerseyCowboy

        Crown-of-thorns are not an introduced species, and there is no evidence these new outbreaks are new. There’s also no predators that consistently feed on them. This is just a case of an animal out-evolving another.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    “COTS is loaded with programs that help it distinguish starfish from innocent creatures.”

    Does that include recreational divers?

    Or are humans not innocent? 😉


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar