The little drone skims above the waves, scanning for plastic bottles, candy wrappers and other floating debris. When it finds something, another bot comes along with a net and scoops it up.
It’s part of a joint project between the University of Louisville and Abu Dhabi University. Researchers are looking to robotics for new ways to de-litter our oceans — one piece of discarded trash at a time.
“Cleaner oceans means better marine life and overall human life,” said Ayman El-Baz, professor and chair of bioengineering at UofL’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering.
There are currently some 5.25 trillion discarded plastic pieces in the ocean, according to National Geographic. The drone, El-Baz said, can help find and remove roughly 269,000 tons of that garbage floating on the water’s surface.
UofL researcher Ahmed Shalaby said drones, unlike humans, are capable of scanning large areas with great detail and in a short amount of time, thanks to their bird’s eye view and scanning technology.
“You get finer details with the drone compared to satellite images,” said researcher Ali Mahmoud. “You can use it at different altitudes at different areas, at any time, and it’s very inexpensive.”
El-Baz’s team is leading development on the drone’s data analysis, segmentation and imaging capabilities.
Initially, the UofL researchers used the algorithms to detect vegetation cover in the Louisville area. Their counterparts at ADU came up with the idea of tuning the algorithms for hunting water-borne litter.
The bots will be completely autonomous, patrolling the ocean on their own. But for now, the UofL researchers will test the algorithms tuned by Abu Dhabi University team over the Ohio River, and work on enhancing them.
Once their work is done, El-Baz said, these drones could have a big impact.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, discarded trash poses a huge threat to marine life. Plastic debris can injure or kill fish and birds by altering their habitat, through chemical contamination or through ingestion.
The EPA estimates that nearly 300 species around the world are negatively affected by plastic debris in the ocean. That includes about 86 percent of all sea turtles and more than 40 percent of all sea birds and mammals.
“Drones might be a small solution for this very, very big problem,” El-Baz said.