- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) - Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

Lamar University sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M; AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding.

He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to darts.

“The marine biologists were (saying), ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,’ ” he said.

Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

To remove lionfish from the Gulf now, dive teams mark out an area, identify where the lionfish are, and catch and remove them from that space.

The robot, called Lion Hunter, will be able to complete the first two steps, freeing up more divers to catch the fish, said sophomore Tristen Harris, who has worked on the project with Myler since May.

While he worked on robotics in high school, Harris said the biggest challenge has been communication between the Lion Hunter and its controller on a boat at the surface.

The current version of the project uses a tether to connect the two, and they’ve considered using sound waves as well.

The “war of the worlds” project will be Ma’s first time working in the field, she said.

Working with undergraduates requires “a lot of hand-holding,” said Myler, who also has graduate students involved in the project, but they become “quite sophisticated” in robotics through the process.

Though they call to mind science-fiction movies and terminators, the projects help protect environments threatened by invasive species.

“I’ve gotten attached to lionfish,” Myler said - he keeps a small model of one on his desk, and has participated in the dives to collect them - but “they cause more disruption to the ecology because they have no natural predators” in the Gulf and Caribbean waters.

His robots target them in ways that are cleaner and more efficient than other methods, he said.

“To make the ecosystem stable and promote biodiversity, there’s already consensus in the industry that lionfish are a problem and need to be removed,” he said.

“Since we are going to remove it, what’s the best way we can do it that promotes biodiversity in the most efficient manner?”

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Information from: The Beaumont Enterprise, https://beaumontenterprise.com

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