Underwater robotics

A voracious and venomous apex predator is wreaking havoc up and down the East Coast and throughout the Caribbean. To fight it, we need a fleet of state-of-the-art robots that can venture into spaces beyond the reach of humanity.

Orin Hoffman Creating such a fleet is real work for Orin Hoffman ’01, chief roboticist for the Lionfish Project. Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, lionfish began appearing in the western Atlantic in the 1980s and have since multiplied rapidly from Rhode Island down to South America and out to Bermuda, devouring dozens of other species and throwing off the ecological balance of coral reefs.

No other sea creature in the region eats lionfish—but people can, and increasing human consumption of the fish may be the key to keeping their population in check. “ ‘You gotta eat ’em to beat ’em’—that’s our slogan,” says Hoffman, who finds lionfish “delicious.”

But many lionfish dwell deeper than fishermen can reach through traditional means. That’s where the robots come in. While working for iRobot, Hoffman teamed up with the corporation’s CEO, Colin Angle, and others to launch the nonprofit Robots in Service of the Environment, whose current focus is the Lionfish Project.

The goal is to design a lionfish-catching robot that is easy for fishermen to afford, deploy and repair. With financial support from the Boston Aquarium and the government of Bermuda, among other organizations, Hoffman and a team of volunteer roboticists in the Boston area have developed prototypes and tested them off the Bermuda and Florida coasts.

The tube-shaped robot, called the Guardian LF1, is lowered from a boat down hundreds of feet to the ocean floor, where the lionfish, because they have no natural predators, approach it without fear, at which point the Guardian stuns the lionfish with two probes that stick out at the front. “And then,” Hoffman says, “we can suck the fish into the robot without killing it.”

The fishermen pull the Guardian back onto the boat and retrieve the fish to be frozen and sold. “That whole process is maybe 10 minutes or so for five fish. And, selling at $6 a pound, it actually makes for quite an economical day of fishing.”

Of his double major at Amherst, Hoffman says, “I think fundamentally my background in physics and philosophy, in the way that is taught at a liberal arts school, has best served me to solve problems in the real world that require not just engineering but a more comprehensive systems perspective.” Upon graduating, Hoffman worked at Mount Holyoke’s nascent engineering program, where he created “a course based on developing robotics for humanitarian needs.”

In 2006 he moved on to iRobot, where he became technical director of its defense and security division. Today he works for the U.S. Secretary of Defense, in the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx. Both positions involve “fielding robotics into harsh and austere environments,” he says, “to do difficult jobs that humans don’t want to do.”