A Starfish-Killing, Artificially Intelligent Robot Is Set to Patrol the Great Barrier Reef by John R. Platt

Summary of Article: In the past few years, there has been an explosion of crown of thorn starfish (COTS) around the Great Barrier Reef. COTS are native to the reef, but recently their numbers have grown immensely––possibly from overfishing of their predators, but also from the movement of nutrients from land to sea. COTS prey on coral polyps and pose a significant threat to the reef. To combat this threat, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia have developed a type of robot called a COTSbot that hunts and kills this specific type of starfish.


The robot is equipped with thrusters, a pre-programmed path, sonar, and cameras that not only help it detect and target starfish, but also help it avoid hitting the reef. The COTSbot kills COTS by injecting them with poisonous bile from a needle, after which the starfish die within 24 hours––this ensures that they do not regenerate in that time.

Crown of thorns starfish

Analysis: This robot is a revolutionary step in protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Divers have already been trying to kill crown-of-thorns starfish, but the robot can be useful in doing so even during bad weather, high currents, and at night, when swimming around the reef is forbidden. It has also been programmed to recognize starfish that are hiding and can kill 200 starfish in a four to eight hour mission. The efficiency and proven accuracy of the machine is pretty remarkable, and is especially important because a single starfish can produce millions of young.

The Australian government, major universities, and science centers are working hard to get to the root of the problem and come up with long-term solutions, not just to rid the reef of COTS outbreaks, but improve water quality overall and protect the reef from other threats––because the starfish aren't the only things threatening the reef.

Warming sea-surface temperatures from global warming and ocean acidification are major factors as well. On a more local scale, land-based runoff, coastal development, and illegal fishing are also extremely harmful to the reef and the surrounding ecosystem. Humans play a large role in the devastation of the reef; fighting the crown-of-thorns starfish is only one way to combat the problem. The other is to take more responsibility in the way we treat our environment.

To find out more about why crown-of-thorns starfish pose such a problem to the reef, check out the video below:

My Main Take-Away: I have never seen the Great Barrier Reef, and I'm afraid I may never be able to see it in all its glory. While the COTS problem is being effectively dealt with, there are still other major threats to the reef––and the environment in general––that are much more large scale and difficult to deal with; mostly because the solution doesn't involve us keeping nature in check, like with the COTSbot, but us keeping ourselves in check. Still, the article enlightened about some major, impressive scientific advancements that are taking place, and made me optimistic for a future where technological advancements can actually help and heal the environment. The COTSbot is an example not just about how ingenious humans can be when it comes to technology––especially in terms of artificial intelligence (the COTSbot has become so advanced that it no longer responds to the fake starfish used in trials, only real ones)––but also of how scientific innovation can truly make a positive difference.

Decline of Great Barrier Reef

Help protect our world's coral reefs! You can even adopt one here!


Created with images by Bob Linsdell - "Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland (483754)" • mtkopone - "Crown of Thorns Starfish" • NOAA Photo Library - "reef3124"

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