There Is A Crazy Plan To Use Electricity-Zapping Robots To Hunt Lionfish

The prototype hasn't been fully constructed yet, however they're already field testing parts of it. Ed Williams/Robo Nautica/RISE

Lionfish may look pretty but these beauties have been wreaking havoc in marine ecosystems across the globe. These venomous fish have managed to chomp their way out of the Indo-Pacific Ocean and have since conquered the Caribbean, the Western Atlantic, and more recently the Mediterranean Sea. But a nautical robotics company has come up with an eccentric plan to tackle them: electrofishing killer robots.

The project is the brainchild of Robo Nautica and Robots in the Service of the Environment (RISE). This company has brought together a team of engineers and scientist to develop two prototype designs of remotely operated underwater vehicles equipped with cameras that are capable of hunting down lionfish, PBS Newshour reports.

Their first design features a pressure-powered harpoon to spear the fish. Their other model has two electrode plates that are designed to zap the lionfish. The saltwater is highly conductive, so it ensures that surrounding fish won’t also receive a shock.
The prototype for the pressure-powered spear firing robot. Image credit: Ed Williams/Robo Nautica/RISE

The team has already been testing out their early prototypes over the summer in Bermuda, and it’s going surprisingly well. That’s because the lionfish’s strength is also its biggest weakness – a lack of natural predators means they’re not scared of strange robots lurking towards them.

Of course, this lack of predators has served them for a long time. Their venomous barbs and dazzling appearance mean predators do not approach them. Equally, since they’re not native to most of the waters they inhabit, the prey fish do not see them as a threat so happily swim up to them. To make matters worse, they breed like rabbits all year round and have a near-unquenchable appetite, making them one of the few species of fish that actually overeat.

The common lionfish, in all its glory. Image credit: LauraD/Shutterstock

According to the NOAA, they have arrived off the southeast coast of the US, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico over the past 25 years, perhaps due to aquarium owners dumping them in the Atlantic Ocean. They say the species has now become a massive threat to native ecosystems, coral reefs, and local fishing economies.

“In order to attack the problem of lionfish in the Western Atlantic, you need maybe thousands of machines,” John Rizzi, an entrepreneur and executive director of RISE, told PBS. “To do that, you have to be able to build them reliably, inexpensively.”

Zapping robots is certainly brave of them. But whether this, or any culling program, is a viable solution is yet to be seen. Check out PBS's feature on the lionfish terminators below for more information. 

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