In America’s Cup waters, a robot takes on an invasion of lionfish


The America’s Cup is a technology race as much as a sailboat race. Make a breakthrough in design — be it a winged keel or, in this era of hydrofoiling, a better daggerboard — and your chances of securing the oldest major trophy in sports increase considerably.

But the Cup’s arrival in Bermuda, the British territory in the North Atlantic where the competition will begin next month, has also been a catalyst to help solve an altogether different type of technological challenge.

Bermuda has a growing problem with the lionfish, a spiny and voracious invasive species with no natural predators that is a threat to its native fish and the health of its coral reefs.

The British America’s Cup team, Land Rover BAR, and its sustainability sponsor, 11th Hour Racing, are intent on leaving a legacy in Bermuda and have made the lionfish a priority.

Ben Ainslie, Land Rover BAR’s founder and skipper, has made sustainability part of the conversation in this edition of the Cup. Last year, he was a driving force in persuading all the teams to sign a sustainability charter that committed them to eliminating single-use plastics, avoiding water pollution, reusing materials and protecting marine habitats.

“My wife, Georgie, and I are good friends of Richard Branson’s, and we have been to stay with him on Necker Island a few times,” said Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the biggest star in British sailing.

“Being there in the Caribbean and here in Bermuda and talking to the locals, you realize the extent of the lionfish issue, and the potential devastation it could cause,” he added. “It’s something they are really, really concerned about.”

This week, a small group of scientists and conservationists, with the financial and promotional help of Land Rover BAR, is deploying a robot prototype in Bermuda designed to stun and capture lionfish at depths that human divers rarely reach.

“It’s an inventive way to try and tackle this issue,” Ainslie said in an interview Saturday. “I’m sure it’s going to get developed over time, and I’m sure they’ll make it work.”

The robot is the brainchild of a new organization, Robots in Service of the Environment, which was founded in 2015 by Colin Angle and his wife, Erika.

Colin Angle is the chief executive and co-founder of iRobot, whose products include the robot vacuum Roomba and the bomb-disarming PackBot. Avid divers, the Angles founded Robots in Service of the Environment, known as RSE (pronounced rise), after a trip to Bermuda.

Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the lionfish, which reproduces at a rapid rate, has been colonizing the Caribbean and Atlantic. With its protruding spines and distinctive coloration, it is a popular aquarium fish and was possibly released — intentionally or unintentionally — into U.S. coastal waters.

The Bermuda robot is RSE’s first initiative. Wendy Schmidt, a co-founder of 11th Hour Racing, has helped fund the project through Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, and Ainslie’s team has helped promote it.

“It certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly without the America’s Cup, because we are a volunteer organization and we count on contributions from the community,” Orin Hoffman, RSE’s chief roboticist, said last week in Boston before heading to Bermuda.

“There’s a lot of attention on Bermuda right now because of the Cup,” he said. “You see these beautiful boats sailing around Bermuda, and underneath them there’s this pretty horrific environmental catastrophe underway with this lionfish invasion, so I think it brings the community of people who are passionate about the ocean together.”

The long-term goal is to control the lionfish by making it a popular seafood choice. That will require the involvement of commercial fishermen.

“Below recreational dive depths there are still enormous populations of lionfish, and some biologists believe they are doing most of their breeding at depths below the typical 90 feet that recreational divers swim at,” Hoffman said. “So the goal is to have our robot go down to 400 feet and be easy to use so commercial fishermen can efficiently use it.

“In order to do that,” he continued, “we need to make it low cost, so we’re targeting $1,000 or under. That’s a really hard problem.”

To promote lionfish consumption, Land Rover BAR and the five other America’s Cup teams will take part in a cook-off Wednesday night at the National Museum of Bermuda, where leading chefs representing each team will compete to prepare the best lionfish dish.

Ainslie and the other skippers will be the judges. Participants include Chris Kenny, the head chef on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, and Rob Ruiz, the chef and owner of the Land and Water Co. in Carlsbad, California, and a leading voice for responsibly sourced seafood.

“We humans have created this lionfish problem for ourselves, so now our hope is that we can eat our way out of it,” Ruiz said by telephone last week from San Diego. “Lionfish are delicious, and they are nutritious. It’s a slightly sweet, white, flaky and versatile fish that can be utilized like a pollock or a snapper.”

Ruiz sees developing a large commercial market for the species as a rare win-win (unless you’re a lionfish).

“All of our main fishing stocks right now are in critical condition, so this is a brilliant way to alleviate stress on all of the other species that we are targeting,” he said. “Here’s a very beautiful creature we can capture and make a positive impact.”

The lionfish is increasingly on the menu in restaurants in the United States and the Caribbean, but Ruiz said there was not yet a supply large or consistent enough to create a reliable market. The fact that lionfish spines are poisonous could dissuade some diners, but Ruiz said they were easily snipped off after capture.

As a rock dweller that does not school in large numbers, the lionfish is impractical to catch by net. Spearfishing is the typical collection method, but RSE’s new robot could change that.

The robot is being developed by a team of volunteers, including biologists, that is working out of the Boston garage of John Rizzi, RSE’s executive director.

“We’ve kind of moved in,” Hoffman of RSE said with a laugh. “We work in folks’ backyards; we’ve had water tanks in, you know, questionable spots. This is a pretty classic startup technology story. But instead of looking for an IPO, we are looking just to raise enough funding for us to get robots out there to make an impact.”

Schmidt said the ability to distribute the robot and the development of a fishery in Bermuda would be important to the success of her team’s efforts.

“I would count those as big wins if we can be a catalyst towards that kind of outcome,” she said, “and obviously if Ben and his team win the America’s Cup, they get an even bigger platform for their messaging.”


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