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There’s a new foundation devoted to building robots to hunt down hordes of lionfish roaming the Atlantic for several decades now.
Lionfish have been dubbed darwin’s nightmare because of their tremendous adaptability. They are flexible in what they eat, they can thrive in many different environments (salt water or fresh, cold water or warm), and they reproduce like crazy, all year round, rather than having a particular breeding season. Plus they have venomous spikes, discouraging potential predators from eating them in turn.
The prototypes under development are technically cousins to robotic vacuum cleaners, because iRobot CEO Colin Angle is one of the founders of Robots in the Service of the Environment (RISE).
That makes lionfish a particularly problematic invasive species. Originally from the Indo-Pacific region, the bright stripes and frilly fins of the lionfish made it a popular choice for exotic pet owners. Those same owners likely dumped adult lionfish into public waters in the mid-1980s, and the species reproduced like gangbusters, with devastating ecological results.
In the Bahamas, for instance, lionfish devoured parrotfish and other smaller species that consume plants, the better to keep algae growth in check. Without them, algae bloomed freely and choked the coral reef ecosystems.
There’s definitely a growing market for lionfish: Whole Foods sells fillets in certain geographical areas, as do several sea-to-table restaurants in Florida and North Carolina, in particular. But lionfish have to be speared by hand; they lurk in coral reefs, avoiding dragging nets, and they don’t fall for the old bait-on-a-hook trick of pole fishing, either.
The two prototypes include video cameras, so that pilots can guide the robots through the water, but the ultimate goal is to build autonomous underwater robots to hunt lionfish.