It’s time to let a robot invasion stop the Lionfish explosion

Undoing man’s folly is, sometimes, a robot’s work.

Unwittingly introduced to the Atlantic Ocean over a quarter of a century ago, the lionfish, which is native to the Pacific, is responsible for an ecological disaster of epic proportions in the Caribbean, Bermuda’s, and off the shore of Florida coast, and it’s spreading up the coast.

A complete lack of predators, voracious appetite and ability to reproduce at an astonishing rate has resulted in a mushrooming lionfish population that is decimating ecosystems, coral reefs and the fishing business. 

Catching and eating lionfish, which are delicious, sounds like a reasonable solution, but the fish can’t be netted, and are generally fished one person and one spear at a time. If fisherman can’t catch lionfish en masse, they can’t sell them at quantities to food stores and restaurants. Supply creates demand, which generates more demand that fisherman can supply.

If they can figure out how to catch the fish.

RISE, which stands for Robots in Service of the Environment, has come up with a very 21st century solution to the lionfish disaster: robots.

“Erika and I love diving and, through diving, became increasingly aware of the crisis,” said Colin Angle who co-founded RISE with his wife Erika. Angle is also the co-founder and CEO of iRobot (Roomba robot vacuum, Packbot military robot).

On one dive, their boat captain challenged Angle, “Okay, you build robots, build one to go hunt lionfish.”

This was not as crazy of an idea as it sounds and Angle had already been wondering “if there was still a way to use robot technology to solve larger environmental problems and maybe more proactively than merely sending our defense robots to natural disaster zones.”

The Lionfish challenge

Robots for good sounds cheesy, but there were more practical considerations. Could, Angle wondered, a robot even do the job and could it do it at scale?

“Spending half a million dollars to build a robot that kill 10 lionfish is absurd,” he told me.

Angle shared a few details of the robot they built and that will make its public debut next month. They started with fresh-water electro fishing technology and adapted it for salt water. The robot stuns, but doesn’t kill the lionfish and then it sucks them into the robot. It does this over and over again, until full of unconscious fish and then rises to the surface where a fisherman can unload the catch and deliver them to waiting restaurants and food stores.

“Ultimately, the control of this device is like a PlayStation game: you’re looking at screen and using a joystick controller. Zap it, catch it, do it again, said RISE Executive Director John Rizzi who told me that a team of unpaid volunteers have been working on the prototype for over a year. They also got some seed funding from The Angle Family, Schmidt Marine Technology Partners and the Anthropocene Institute.

Stunning, eating and feeding brains

RISE is a two-pronged effort: slow damaging growth of the lionfish population and create a rich curriculum around this and future RISE work that can be used in American middle schools.

Erika Angle, herself a biochemist, has spent a decade working with the non-profit Science from Scientist, which brings real scientists into classrooms where they not only talk about their work, but offer hands-on science demonstrations.

“It’s such an integral part of RISE mission…We’re trying to reach these kids with knowledge. Ultimately, we’re going to be relying on these kids to save planet for next generation,” said Erika Angle. 

‘Spending half a million dollars to build a robot that kill 10 lions fish is absurd.’

RISE will, she said, build a curriculum around the RISE lionfish robot that can go anywhere in the country. While there’s currently no plan for a practical lesson, like going on a boat and piloting one of the robot-catching fish, that could happen in the future.

For now, though, the biggest demonstration of the RISE’s lionfish hunter will happen in Bermuda on April 19, as part of the America’s Cup festivities. There’ll even been a celebrity chef lionfish cook-off, the 11th Hour Racing #EatLionfish Chef’s Throwdown. All of it designed to help launch RISE’s Kickstarter project, which Colin Angle hopes can help raise funds to further developer, build and deliver these robots to commercial fishermen and woman at about $500-to-$1,000 each.

What if the robot is so effective, it wipes out the lionfish in the Atlantic?

“That’s a perverse reality you can worry about, but we’re confident that the lionfish can reproduce so quickly [one fish produces 30,000-to-40,000 eggs every few days] that it would be hard to eliminate them,” said Rizzi.

Colin, though, reminded me that that’s still the goal. “This is an invasive species,” he said. A significant reduction in lionfish numbers would help the fish and reef ecosystem to recover.

There is another benefit to using robots like this to solve ecological problems. “Unlike biological systems that once you deploy are out of your control, this one you can simply turn off,” said Angle.

WATCH: Invasion of the lionfish – Part 1 – The threat

 

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