Embed

Share

Yuan Wang, co-founder of American Marine Research Company, details the progress his company is making in developing automated drones to identify and catch lionfish. (Joseph Baucum/jbaucum@pnj.com)

An engineer at American Marine Research Company works on a drone on Thursday, June 29, 2017. The company is designing robots to autonomously detect and collect lionfish.(Photo: Joseph Baucum/jbaucum@pnj.com)

PENSACOLA, Fla. — There’s a potential game changer brewing in the struggle to eradicate lionfish from the Gulf of Mexico.

A quartet of engineers is developing drones to autonomously detect and collect lionfish at depths beyond the scope of human divers. The team, a startup called American Marine Research Co., arrived in the Florida Panhandle on June 9.

By the end of July, the company’s goal is to be able to harvest enough of the sea creatures that the business turns a profit by supplying the fish to the restaurant industry.

“We’re building an artificial predator for a species that doesn’t have a natural one,” said Yuan Wang, 23, co-founder of American Marine Research.

Wang said the aim is to design a robot so adept at neutralizing its target that out of 100 lionfish in a given area, it would pinpoint and corral 95, at the very least. He added that the company also hopes to program the drone to distinguish between other types of fish so as not to decimate other populations such as red snapper or grouper.

Read more:

Study: Lionfish invading Mediterranean Sea

Lionfish: You have to eat them to beat them

The company has labored on several prototypes. The priorities for the technology include ensuring the drones can move properly and descend to the appropriate depths, possibly deeper than 1,000 feet below sea level. The intent is to ultimately remove the need for a human user. The largest robot is about the size of a mini fridge and the tiniest is smaller than an office trash can.

Wang, who graduated from Princeton University in May, said the company conducted a successful test on Sunday. One model demonstrated it could pull a 200-pound human across a pool about as quickly as a human can swim. But Wang noted the company has also had two failed tests where the robot was damaged.

“We’ve been making our systems incrementally more powerful and more robust and ready to receive attachments,” he said. “We don’t know if we’ll succeed, but it won’t be for a lack of trying.”

Lionfish pose a threat to ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico because they largely lack predators in the region. The colorful fish, with feather-like fins and zebra-like stripes, originate from the Indo-Pacific region but have flourished off Florida since the 1980s when aquarium collectors released them into area waters. Each female lionfish spawns millions of eggs a year.

Lionfish waiting to be measured Saturday, May 20, 2017 during the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival and Tournament at Plaza de Luna. (Photo: John Blackie/jblackie@pnj.com)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website states that since lionfish “are carnivores that feed on small crustaceans and fish, including the young of important commercial fish species such as snapper and grouper.”

The NOAA has also “concluded that invasive lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods. Marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established.”

At the federal level, legislative efforts have been made to combat the lionfish. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., introduced a bill in May to expand upon a state program that has provided incentives for spear fishermen to collect the fish.

In addition to Wang, American Marine Research Company’s team includes engineers Ian Switzer, Taylor Njaka and Duncan Michael. The trio has attended Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Olin College of Engineering, respectively.

To ensure the company hits its target of profitability by the end of July, Wang said the team typically works as much as 15 hours a day, each day of the week. But with the prospect of sustaining ecosystems by solving the lionfish dilemma, he said the effort has been worthwhile.

“Every single minute, every drop of effort has to go into making these drones,” he said.

A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.