Robotic marine trash collector starts making waves in Hong Kong
Back in November 2020, startup Open Ocean Engineering launched an autonomous trash collector aimed at clearing plastic waste from harbors, lakes and canals. After partnering with games titan Razer last year for a radical redesign, a sleeker Clearbot has now started patrolling Hong Kong waters.
As we've noted many times in the past, plastic waste is an enormous problem – not only for the environment at large but also for our health. Just recently, global leaders from 175 nations signed a resolution aimed at tackling the problem at its source.
Meanwhile there are numerous efforts in play to try and remove the trash already out there, and it was while watching local workers take out small boats to manually remove waste from the waters around the island of Bali that Sidhant Gupta and Utkarsh Goel started thinking about how such a labor-intensive task could be automated.
After graduating from Hong Kong University in 2019, the pair began working on an open-bow robot vessel designed to remove floating plastic trash from local waterways. A basic aluminum prototype was followed by a fiberglass version and by June of last year, the startup started working on a much slicker design thanks to a partnership with gaming hardware brand Razer.
The robotic marine garbage collector is 3 m (9.8 ft) in length and 1.3 m (4.2 ft) wide, and can be remotely controlled or operated autonomously – where it moves up and down a predefined area like a floating Roomba courtesy of an electric propulsion system with a four-hour battery and LiDAR obstacle avoidance. The battery pack can also be recharged via an optional solar docking station to further reduce the impact on the environment.
Either way, the Clearbot scoops up floating debris and feeds it to an onboard conveyor belt and onto a holding bin at the stern with a collection capacity of 200 kg (~440 lb).
An AI camera system is used for trash identification, and to snap a photograph of each piece of plastic waste that makes its way onto the conveyor. These images are tagged with a GPS location and saved to the company's database hosted on Microsoft's Azure platform for subsequent analysis.
Open Ocean Engineering reckons that each Clearbot has the potential to haul in a metric ton of waste per day, and could even help contain oil spills when fitted out with a bespoke boom.
Data gathered so far in Hong Kong cleanup operations – including location, size, waste type and weight of scooped-up waste – has revealed that less than half of the marine plastic recovered can go on to be recycled, but such information could help marine authorities to stem the tide of plastic pollution at its source.
"We’re finding out how the trash ends up in the water in the first place," said Sidhant Gupta in a press statement. "It adds a lot of transparency to the process of marine clean-up. We generate data about what’s actually in the water, what’s the make-up of the stuff that’s there, how much of it is recyclable and what materials we should be focusing on."
Recently, the latest Clearbot vessel has been trialed by the Rotary Club of Hong Kong and began operation keeping a local yacht marina clear of floating waste for a property company called the Sino Group, while also serving as a real-world test-bed for the project.
Open Ocean Engineering is now looking to expand operations beyond Hong Kong, and has already had interest from several companies abroad.