Spotting marine plastic debris is an extremely challenging task. And while satellite imagery is often the most optimal way to track plastic debris in the ocean, the images taken from space can’t always tell if something floating in the water is actually plastic or other natural objects like driftwood and seaweed. This plastic tracking method, however, may soon improve thanks to an algorithm developed by a team of earth observation scientists.
The new technique of detecting plastic debris was developed by first combining high-resolution optical data from the European Space Agency, together with image technology that identifies macroplastics, such as water bottles, plastic bags, and fishing nets, on the sea surface.
Then, the researchers employed an algorithm called the “floating debris index” (FDI) that was configured to tell the difference between macroplastics and other natural objects in images captured by the satellites. After testing the technique, the scientists reported an 86 percent accuracy rate.
While plastic tends to get pushed around in the ocean, winds and ocean currents will propel it into clusters that stay in one place. The researchers hope that their optical satellite data can help identify these aggregates, and that people and organizations can use this information to work on solutions.