HAMILTON, Bermuda, Wednesday September 21, 2016 – Few predators can match the devastating impact of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish, which can reduce a flourishing coral reef to a barren wasteland if left unchecked.
Substantial numbers of lionfish have been spreading across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico since the early 2000s and, wherever they go, the aquatic invaders gorge on just about anything that fits in their mouths: colourful reef fish, juveniles of commercial species including snapper and grouper, and algae grazers like parrotfish that allow corals to thrive. Millions of them now roam the Caribbean, preying on corals and juvenile native fish, which don’t recognize them as a threat.
No solution has been found to control their advance yet, but conservationists could soon have a new tool at their disposal: killer robots.
CNN reports that the idea emerged from a diving trip in Bermuda, where iRobot CEO Colin Angle met with local conservationists and learned about the extent of the damage caused by lionfish.
One member of the group suggested that he create a machine to kill the fish, and another offered to provide funding.
Angle returned home and wrote a proposal, which swiftly became the non-profit company “Robots in Service of the Environment (RISE).”
The design for a lionfish killer basically combines a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) with a bespoke electrocution device.
According to RISE executive director John Rizzi: “It will be a tethered device with a control mechanism that you drop into the water. You drive the ROV until you see the fish – a lot of the technology is in the cameras – then you drive the ROV onto the fish and press the trigger.”
The lionfish have reportedly shown no fear in tests when twin electrodes are lined up alongside them, ahead of administering the fatal shock. The fish is then sucked into the ROV and returned to the hunter.
The mechanism is simple and effective, but challenges are ongoing.
“We’re chasing a million lionfish. We need thousands of devices and they need to be reliable, inexpensive, and safe,” Rizzi told CNN.
With consumer-level pricing, RISE aims to make the robots available to any diver or fisherman, and to build a market.
“By getting the economics right, we will give people the incentive to buy our device and kill some fish, sell them or eat them, and do it again,” says Rizzi. “The best way to eliminate a species is if humans eat it.”
Beyond price issues, there is also a fear that the robots could target the wrong fish, but RISE is developing recognition software that will only allow them to kill lionfish.
Various ideas have already been tried to control lionfish numbers, from using them for food and jewellery, to training sharks to eat them.
Spear fishing derbies have had some local success in reducing populations, but there is recognition from conservationists that larger scale solutions are required.
“Currently there isn’t an effective way to conduct mass culling,” says Chris Flook, of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in Bermuda. “We have spear fishers with special permits that catch lionfish on shallow reefs but lionfish survive at depths beyond the reach of recreational divers.”
Prototypes of the robot are undergoing tests to assess how many fish can be killed, power requirements, and variations of the design. The trials will continue for the next year, before the first commercial models are assembled and sent out to hunt.