Lionfish-zapping robots come to island
The underwater war being waged on Bermuda's lionfish took a giant leap forward yesterday morning as a prototype submersible robot caught one of the invasive predators via remote access.
A hefty team of scientists, conservationists and roboticists gathered at Michael Douglas's Ariel Sands hotel where the Guardian LF1, controlled by two men on a beach with an Xbox controller and computer screen, stunned and snagged one of the venomous fish that was swimming in a nearby shallow pool.
It is hoped that with the prototype perfected, coupled with buy-in from the community, many more robots will be deployed into Bermuda's waters with the dual benefit of creating a new fishery and helping to all but eliminate their impact on the island's native species. Robots in Service of the Environment — a non-profit founded by specialists in Bermuda — enlisted the expertise of iRobot, which develops robots to solve crises including bomb disarmament. RSE was launched to use the technology to focus on environmental causes including lionfish, which compete for the same food as some of Bermuda's most commercially viable fish. The robot is able to plunge to depths of 400 feet where the lionfish aggregate in larger numbers — beyond where most scuba divers or free divers can safely go.
The project was launched about a year ago when iRobot cofounder Colin Angle was diving in Bermuda and met local businessman Geoffrey Gardner, who is now director of operations for RSE. Graham Maddocks, of the Ocean Support Foundation, challenged Mr Angle to develop the technology specific to Bermuda's needs. With funding from the Schmidt Marine Technology Partners and the support of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that challenge has been met with the prototype.
The Royal Gazette attended Ariel Sands yesterday where two controllers watched on computer screens as they remotely powered the Guardian LF1 towards a medium-sized lionfish in the pool. It looked as though they were playing a video game but one with a very real purpose. Lining the relatively docile fish up between two probes sticking out the front of the robot, the controllers then delivered an immobilising charge to stun the fish before the robot sucked it into its chamber. The atmosphere on the beach appeared jubilant and triumphant.
Executive director of RSE John Rizzi told The Royal Gazette right after the feat: “The issue of lionfish in Bermuda is terrible — we all know they aggregate down deep. We need to make these robots inexpensive and easy to operate — it is the only way we will get a lot of fish. If it is cheap, easy and economically interesting it will motivate people to take part and create that industry and really do damage to the lionfish population.”
Chief marketing officer for RSE Rise Matt Lloyd added: “The robot is in prototype form, so this is the initial testing and debut of the robot — it is science in the making.
“This robot will essentially enable fishermen or ecotourists to purchase a robot — they will be able to go out and capture lionfish — about ten at a time — and then bring them up to put on ice before going off to catch the next fish.
“We are looking at creating a robot that is below $1,000. Right now lionfish is on sale at Whole Foods at about $10 to $12 a pound so there is a great opportunity here to develop a tool set that will take an environmental challenge and make it a mainstay for local businesses.
“On April 19 we are going to start a Kickstarter campaign because it is as much about getting the public aware of the lionfish problem as it is about creating innovation to stop it so we will offer the community across Bermuda a way to actually get involved.”
The America's Cup has helped to spur the project into action with the involvement of Land Rover BAR's exclusive sustainability partner, 11th Hour Racing, which intends on leaving a legacy in Bermuda long after the sailing event is over.
11th Hour Racing is hosting a celebrity cook-off this evening where top chefs from all six of the America's Cup team countries, including Virgin chief Richard Branson's head chef Chris Kenny, will compete to cook the best lionfish dish.
Todd McGuire, programme director for 11th Hour Racing, told us: “Land Rover BAR wanted to have a legacy project to leave behind in Bermuda and the lionfish seemed like a great opportunity to use the platform of sport and the America's Cup to raise awareness.
“You have the culling and harvesting with products like RSE, Guardians of the Reef and Groundswell and now we have to increase demand for lionfish. What better way to do that than bringing celebrity chefs from the six competing countries of the America's Cup and trying the different cuisine?
“Lionfish is a nice, light, white flaky fish and the chefs are excited to try it. It is not a difficult fish to cook and is delicious.”
Wendy Schmidt, a cofounder of 11th Hour Racing, provided initial funding for RSE through Schmidt Marine Technology Partners. Funding also came from Anthropocene Institute and the Angle Family, while Land Rover BAR, under skipper Sir Ben Ainslie, has helped to promote it. The Bermuda Government has also been heavily behind the project since its inception and Michael Dunkley was on site earlier this week in support. The Premier said: “It is important to support this project as the lionfish invasion impacts the sustainability of our marine ecosystem and this new technology will tremendously assist with their control and management. With the help from Bermuda Government, RSE Guardian LF1 represents a promising step forward.”
Philippe Rouja, curator of historic wrecks under the Department of Conservation Services, said: “Government has been involved from day one — the moment the concept came up we were there taking Colin [Angle] to dive some of the lesser known shipwrecks when the idea came up for the robot. Chris Flook [fish behaviouralist at RSE] was working for government as well at the time and we both got permission to dedicate some of our time to advancing this project.
“The marine resources board is aware of every step we take and the Fisheries Department is fully on board.
“The project arrives on a body of knowledge that has been pulled together by the likes of the Ocean Support Foundation and Lionfish Taskforce and the Government.”
Assistant scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, who was on site during the deployment yesterday, reiterated the importance of thinning out lionfish from Bermuda's reefs. “It is about maintaining the biodiversity of our fish as they are competing for food with our commercially important fish species like the grouper and conies,” Dr Gringley said.
“They are inhibiting our fish stocks and that can affect the economy of our island. They are also a threat to the health of our coral reef which encourages tourism and protects the island. The densest population happens to be really deep so if we have something else to tackle them there, it will help us get a handle on the population.”
•Additional information on the Guardian LF1 project and crowdfunding campaign is available at
See a video of the full capture