Project seeks to remove garbage from the ocean floor with robots

A project funded by the European Union’s Research and Development Information Service, CORDIS, seeks to take care of the garbage that has been accumulating in the oceans for many years.

SeaClear is an initiative led by Dr. Bart De Schutter, a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, which uses an innovative technique in which robots seek to remove garbage from remote parts of the ocean.

Cleaning the sea with robots

Today’s oceans contain 26-66 million tons of waste, with approximately 94% located on the seafloor, it is pointed out in the presentation of this project. Cleaning work is usually superficial or, failing that, if more complex tasks are carried out, it depends on the experience of trained divers.

The problem begins to spiral out of control when the nature of ocean water is considered. Large currents and deep bodies of water can carry garbage anywhere, polluting and damaging ocean flora and fauna along the way.

One way to get to the most elusive garbage is with robots, and that is what the SeaClear project is about. «We believe that our project is the first to collect underwater garbage automatically with robots»commented Dr. Bart De Schutter in conversation with Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Under the proposed dynamic, an underwater robot will be responsible for finding debris by venturing near the seafloor to perform close-up scans using cameras and sonar. The drone will also help search for debris when the water is clear by flying over an area of ​​interest, while in murky areas it will look for obstacles to avoid, such as boats.

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This system will be able to distinguish between garbage and other elements on the seabed, such as animals and seaweed, through the use of artificial intelligence. In addition, an algorithm will be trained on various images of various items you may find, from plastic bottles to fish, so that it learns to distinguish them and identify the waste.

Garbage collection will be taken care of by the second underwater robot, which will collect the items mapped by its companions. Equipped with a gripper and a suction device, it will pick up pieces of debris and deposit them in a tethered basket placed on the seafloor which will then be brought to the surface. “We did some initial tests near Dubrovnik, where a plastic bottle was deposited on purpose and we picked it up with a gripper robot”said Dr. De Schutter. “We will have more experiments where we will try to recognize more pieces of litter in more difficult circumstances and then pick them up with the robot.”.

In line with some of the objectives of the EU mission to restore our waters and oceans by 2030, Dr De Schutter and colleagues estimate that this system could detect up to 90% of the litter on the seafloor and collect around 80% of what it identifies.

This project, which began on January 1, 2020, has a deadline of December 31, 2023 to be fully executed. Some tests have already been carried out around the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia, in September 2021. Soon, they will report news on ongoing parallel projects, such as a system for predicting the displacement of garbage in the oceans and a mechanism similar to SeaClear, but for rivers.