Right.. Ocean Trash is a big problem.
The whales are washed up on our beaches with gastric shocks due to the insane amount of trash they have consumed–the entire ocean ecosystem is actually contaminated by these pollutants. Eventually, the bits of trash that fish consume reach us through the food chain and cause long-term damage to human health. However, ocean habitats help far more than we think –more than a billion people depend directly or indirectly on the productivity of the ocean to maintain their livelihoods.
Nevertheless, the real reason that this is a truly massive problem is that, at least for the time being, there is no feasible, large-scale, repeatable solution that can be used to control the situation. Yes, at the top level, several countries have or are currently taking action to ban single-use plastics. And that's fine, but in fact, this will make little difference to the amount of total trash entering the ocean itself.
In reality, you might argue that a top-down, government-driven approach to clearing ocean waste is one that is going to take too long, would be too costly and might not be successful enough, at least in the short term.
So if we are to realistically begin to solve the problem of ocean trash, we need to focus on two main tasks:
Prevent more trash from reaching the ocean in the first place.
Get the current amount of garbage out of the sea and back to the ground.
We need this to start happening in a period of 3-4 years if we really want to keep the issue at bay (literally?). Changing consumer behavior is, of course, a great way to prevent trash from reaching the sea, but even in countries where both governments and corporations are actively working together, the transition takes longer than expected.
I have been watching and encouraging The Ocean Cleanup Project for the last year. Their goal is to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch using a massive boom of two planes. Imagine a giant tongue cleaner skimming the surface of the ocean, gathering plastics. Okay, that's what they're doing, except that their tongue cleaner is five kilometers long. And pulled by the ship.
Unfortunately, despite heavy funding, support and support, as well as a dedicated team, they ran into trouble due to the scale of their solution–a large single system for collecting ocean trash. The system continues to break, it's hard to maintain, it's harder to operate effectively, and for the time being, they haven't been able to make the project a success.
Clearbot: using autonomous robot swarms to clean the oceans independently!
Nature uses the swarms of individual entities working together to solve large-scale problems. As the swarm is distributed and decentralized, the systems exhibit high efficiency, parallelism, scalability and robustness. Sources include insect colonies, our immune system, and human settlements.
And earlier this year, I got together with two of my friends to see if we could put together an ocean trash-gathering robot–the vision is to have a fleet of these bots clean our oceans and rivers independently. The robot houses a camera running an AI neural net (a binary classifier) to locate the garbage and a true (non-nural) net to passively extract it. The solar panel provides emergency power if the bot is lost at sea and needs to be rescued. Go out in the day, collect the garbage, go back to the hive in the night. The Autonomous Army of Great Bodies.
A few weeks ago, we were given a chance to travel to Indonesia to test our robot, engage coastal communities and better understand their needs. The goal is to build a solution that is less reliant on top-down government action, rather than be driven by bottom-up group adoption.
We tested a single robot to assess robustness, field viability and community involvement. We've had a lot of feedback and we've learned a lot about what we can change about the system to make it a better solution. Strategically located along rivers and estuaries, this could prove to be an effective solution for clearing up near-surface ocean trash.
The people we spoke to in Indonesia gave us insight into the power of collective action–something that worked wonders to keep Bali's beaches safe. I believe that with the right technology, these groups can be enabled to make an impact on a much larger scale
There is a lot more to be done before we can dream of a truly autonomous cleanup of the ocean–but I hope that our research is a step in the right direction. I imagine that coastal communities and businesses, such as Repurpose, which empower the circular economy on land, will one day be empowered by a program like this, enabling them to create a circular economy around water, thereby creating a long-term sustainable human infrastructure.