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How Autonomous Cleaning Drones Could Save The Ocean

  • by: Guy Ellis
  • On: 16, Nov 2018
2 min read

Every year 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans. By 2025, the number of plastic in the ocean is predicted to double. Currently there 245 million tonnes of plastic floating on the ocean’s surface, but heavier plastics have sunk to the sea floor, where it is impossible to catalogue or quantify. Ocean plastic is dissolving into microplastics, which insidiously work their way into the bodies of fish, birds, and even humans.


How can we clean up the ocean

How Much Plastic Is in the Ocean?

There are currently five ‘patches’ of floating plastic and other rubbish in the world’s oceans today, the largest being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at 1.6 million square kilometres. Made up of over a trillion pieces of plastic, it is three times the size of France.

The plastic is brought to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by converging ocean currents (known as gyres), where it slowly degrades under the effects of the sun, ocean and marine life. Though it was discovered in 1997, relatively little has been done to clean it up and it is growing every year.

How Can We Clean Up the Ocean?

Plastic in our seas may seem impossible to clean up, and even for hundreds of people working around the clock, it would be. But autonomous robots can operate independently and clean faster and more efficiently than any human ever could. Here are just some of the robots hoping to clean up the ocean.

  • WasteShark

    One such robot, known as the WasteShark, can clean up 200 litres of ocean waste before being emptied. It was inspired by whale sharks, the largest fish in the oceans. Both the sharks and the robot float through the sea with their mouths open, collecting ocean debris. The robot doesn’t use any form of suction and moves slow enough that there’s no danger of it accidentally ‘eating’ any fish or other ocean life. The WasteShark can also collect data about water quality, providing insight into how fast plastic is degrading in the seas.
  • Hector the Collector

    For the plastic at the bottom of the ocean, there’s a robot that can dive down and collect it. Nicknamed ‘Hector the Collector’, this remote-controlled robot can go far deeper into the ocean than humans can, and doesn’t impact the surrounding marine life. Hector the Collector uses sonar to see and can map out collections of plastic or other rubbish that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean where there’s no light.
  • Seaswarm

    Beyond plastic in the seas, oil spills remain a regular occurrence that harm aquatic life. Developed by MIT, a system of robots known as Seaswarm can clean these spills by floating on the surface of the water and utilising a conveyor belt built out of an oil-absorbing nanomaterial to move oil in the sea into an internal container that ‘digests’ the oil so it doesn’t have to return to shore.
    This material can absorb twenty times its weight in oil. The Seaswarm robots are autonomous, however large fleets could work together through GPS to cooperate on larger spills. The robots are solar powered and could stay at sea for months, operating around the clock.

Whether by autonomous drones, remote-controlled robots or swarms of conveyor belts, it’s clear that something drastic needs to be happen to clean up the world’s oceans. We’re currently on track to have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, at which point it will be too late to save the oceans, and ourselves.

Read about the Seabin Project, or learn how to reduce your own plastic waste.

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