Feature Story

Undersea robot is designed to vacuum up invasive lionfish

by Matt Bokor

Undersea robot is designed to vacuum up invasive lionfish

iRobot CEO hopes his device will protect reefs by removing a venomous fish.

Wreaking environmental havoc in tropical Atlantic waters, the invasive lionfish may soon be drawn into an undersea, robotic vacuum intended to slow the spread of the venomous yet tasty species.

The device, named the Guardian LF1, uses a pair of electrically charged, spatula-like prongs to stun the lionfish, while a thruster sucks the catch into a canister for eventual repurposing as a delicious meal. The prototype is the first device from Robots in Service of the Environment, a nonprofit in Bedford, Massachusetts, formed by iRobot CEO Colin Angle and his wife, Erika Angle, founder of Science from Scientists.

"Erika and I love scuba diving, exploring and traveling. As a result, we are also deeply aware of how fragile the marine ecosystem is and the importance of biodiversity in our oceans," Colin Angle said. "In 2015, on a diving trip to Bermuda, we came face-to-face with the lionfish and saw the devastating reduction to biodiversity and damage to the coral reef that these voracious fish were creating."

Robotics to the rescue

Joined by local environmentalists on their trip, the Angles brainstormed with their hosts over solutions that robotics could offer in terms of large-scale collection of lionfish, which must be speared or caught by hand net, as they don't bite a hook.

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"We knew almost immediately that robotics would provide a unique answer to this environmental problem," Angle said. "Robots can reach huge populations of lionfish below safe diver depth, where people can't go without risking their lives. We also knew that if we could make an affordable platform, it would be economically rewarding catching lionfish."

Native to the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, lionfish became popular aquarium fish in the United States because of their colorful vertical stripes; broad, fan-like fins; and tall dorsal spikes, which happen to be a venomous defense mechanism.

Before long, many aquarium owners lost interest, including some in South Florida who dumped them into local waterways in the mid-1980s, according to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo, Florida. With no predators in its new habit, the species spread exponentially, reproducing quickly and preying on native species.

Killer seafood

To the human palate, however, lionfish tastes like snapper, and can be served whole fried, pan seared, breaded, grilled, blackened or as ceviche. REEF's lionfish cookbook lists dozens of recipes.

"I don't eat a lot of fish, but lionfish are delicious," Angle said. "The first time I ate lionfish it was in a lionfish taco and I loved it."

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Bermuda led the way in promoting lionfish as a meal, launching its "Eat 'Em to Beat 'Em" campaign in 2007, and other island nations and coastal countries followed suit, including the U.S. in 2011 through NOAA.

"We think it is a three-win situation," said Dasha Shivers, general manager of the Hatchet Caye Resort and its Lionfish Grill in Belize. "Fishermen have another fish to fish, we have an exotic menu item and our reef gets some relief. We also have dive tours focused solely on hunting lionfish."

Shock value

Fun to use with a target price of $1,000 or less, the robotic vacuum has two main components: a 25-pound, undersea remotely operated vehicle and a controller (think PlayStation). Tethered to the controller, the cylindrical vehicle, 3.5 feet long and 10 inches in diameter, is lowered into the water. Its video camera streams images to an operator in a boat or on shore, who steers the robot to make the catch.

"The robot is designed for now to collect up to 10 lionfish on each dive and does so by stunning the fish with a charge generated by two 14-inch, low-voltage electrical probes," Angle explained.

Its capacity would enable bulk sales to restaurant and grocery chains once a fleet of the devices is deployed, he said.

"We are confident that the emerging market for lionfish meat will demand a consistent and reliable supply," Angle said. "Whether this is a local, private fisherman selling their catch dock-side, or a large fishing operation selling into the existing commercial seafood supply chain, the fish will sell."

After its April debut in Bermuda, the device remains in the early stages of development, funded through a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $29,500, Angle said.

"We are still refining and testing the platform to ensure it can be successful in helping to reduce the population of lionfish. We have successfully stunned and captured lionfish but we need to do so on a much larger scale. Once this is complete, we will deploy of the first test fleet of robots to cull targeted populations of lionfish in the Atlantic."

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