While ocean clean-ups by themselves are not a solution to the pressing environmental crisis of plastic pollution, they are still essential if we are to reduce the problem’s already overwhelming impact on ocean health. But to do that effectively we need to collect not only the garbage that’s floating at the surface but also the trash that’s made its way down to the seafloor.
This, of course, is a challenging undertaking, but the European Union-funded SeaClear project aims to make things easier with the help of highly-advanced clean-up technologies, designed especially for the job.
The novel system consists of a mixed team of autonomous aerial, surface, and underwater robotic vehicles, all tasked to find and collect litter from the seabed, focusing on coastal areas since that’s where the majority of the garbage enters the oceans from rivers.
The project aims to use a drone together with an underwater remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to spot trash on the surface and in the water column respectively. If garbage is present in both areas, chances are that the seabed is littered as well.
Another ROV then moves in and travels along the seafloor, using a combined suction-gripper device to collect the refuse. This is then carried back to the mothership at the surface, which processes the waste.
To ensure that the marine environment is not harmed during the clean-up, artificial intelligence-based algorithms help the autonomous vehicles tell the difference between garbage and marine life such as fish or coral.
So far, the system has been tested in two different locations, one in the Port of Hamburg, a busy and industrial area, and another one in the Croatian town of Dubrovnik, a touristic area with much calmer and clearer waters.