Fast Company unveils the new robots unleashed by Colin Angle, the man behind the Roomba, after he was challenged by a dive instructor in Bermuda. The marine machines are designed to seek out and suck up lionfish, which are devastating fish populations in the Atlantic Ocean:
Within a year, he and his wife, Erika Ebbel Angle, founder of a biotech startup and the director of the education nonprofit Science from Scientists, had launched a nonprofit called Robots in Service of the Environment–and a team started to develop a robot called Guardian, designed to drive up to a lionfish, stun it, and suck it inside the robot, which can collect multiple fish before returning to the surface. The fish can then be sold to restaurants.
It’s one among many attempts to control an out-of-control population. The fish, which is originally from the Indo-Pacific, has no native predators in the Atlantic, where it started to appear–possibly released by people who had bought the fish as pets–in the 1980s. The fish eats other fish voraciously; within half an hour, it can consume 20 other fish. In five weeks, one lionfish can reduce the population of fish on a reef by 80%. A single lionfish can live up to three decades, and spawn as many as 2 million eggs in a year. In some locations, there may be as many as 1,000 lionfish per acre.
[L]ionfish don’t respond to bait, and can’t easily be caught with nets. Spearfishing works, but only in shallower waters, and the fish are often found in caves deeper than humans can dive.
One challenge was developing a robot that could catch the fish affordably. “You’re not going to go change a population by capturing one lionfish with a half-a-million-dollar robot,” he says. He realized that he could apply manufacturing expertise from iRobot–making low-cost robots like Roomba–to the new robot. The nonprofit is aiming for a cost of $1,000 or less. “The fully capitalized operating cost of running that type of robot is so low that you could make money at this.”
After considering a range of designs, the team moved forward with a prototype that drives directly up to the fish (the lionfish, as a top predator, has no fear and won’t swim away; other fish, with a normal amount of fear, aren’t captured by the system). Two arms stun the fish, and then the robot sucks the fish inside a tube. The current prototype can catch up to 10 fish before returning to the surface to deliver its catch.
The robot is controlled remotely by an operator at the surface who watches the action via a camera.
People may even operate the robots remotely. “Part of the funding model and scalability of the project could be tied to the gamification of the operation of the robot–you could pay to operate a lionfish from your iPad, sitting in your office wanting to do good,” Angle says.