Environment

SeaClear project aims to robo-garbage-pick the ocean floor

SeaClear project aims to robo-...
A diagram of the SeaClear system
A diagram of the SeaClear system
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A diagram of the SeaClear system
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A diagram of the SeaClear system
Subsea Tech's Tortuga ROV, which will be part of the SeaClear system
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Subsea Tech's Tortuga ROV, which will be part of the SeaClear system
Subsea Tech's USV Seacat, which will serve as the mother ship
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Subsea Tech's USV Seacat, which will serve as the mother ship
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While we hear a great deal about the huge patches of garbage that are floating on the world's oceans, there's even more trash lying on the seabed. The European Union-funded SeaClear project aims to gather much of it up, using autonomous robots.

Plans call for the basic system to consist of four robotic vehicles: an aerial drone, two underwater remote-operated vehicles (ROVs), and an unmanned surface vessel that will serve as a mothership. Via umbilical cables, the latter will supply power to the two ROVs, plus it will use an onboard computer to process their transmitted data.

The system will be deployed mainly in coastal areas, as that's where the majority of the garbage enters the ocean from rivers.

Initially, the drone and one of the ROVs will be used to spot trash, on the surface and in the water column respectively – if garbage is present in both of those areas, then it's likely abundant on the seabed in that location too. With that in mind, the second ROV will then move in and travel along the seabed, using a custom-designed gripper and suction device to gather the refuse. This will be carried back to the surface vessel, and disposed of in a central bin.

Subsea Tech's Tortuga ROV, which will be part of the SeaClear system
Subsea Tech's Tortuga ROV, which will be part of the SeaClear system

Artificial intelligence-based algorithms will be used to help the drone and the first ROV to differentiate between garbage and marine animals, etc, plus such algorithms will let the second ROV tell the difference between garbage and coral or other natural structures.

A prototype version of SeaClear was tested this spring at depths of 20 to 30 meters (66 to 98 ft), in the Port of Hamburg and along the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Those locations were chosen because they are quite different from one another – the port is busy, industrial and has fairly silty water, whereas the Croatian coast is much calmer, clear-watered and tourist-oriented.

The consortium partners include Germany's Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services; the Technical Universities of Munich, Delft, Dubrovnik and Cluj-Napoca; SubSea Tech Marseille; the Hamburg Port Authority; and the DUNEA Regional Development Agency Dubrovnik.

Sources: SeaClear, Fraunhofer

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9 comments
guzmanchinky
Water Wall-E
CAVUMark
Excellent use of technology to cover for humans and plastics. Too bad we need it.
Techrex
?? If most of these nearly countless tons of plastic trash in the ocean is on the bottom, what if they modeled a plastic reaping robot, based on a thing that researchers of the Amazon forest trees once used to obtain samples of the tree over great areas quick and easy. They created a kind of flat, floating blimp that coasted OVER the tree tops, so that they could dip down and remove pieces of the trees. So, what if they made a deep-sea robot like that, only with a line of robot arms in its prow, that have electrical sensors in the arms, which can tell if something it touches is made of plastic, instead of normal sea stuff, so it can grab up all kinds of plastic debris. Also, it would be possible to equip the robot grabbing arms with a fiberoptic sensor that could shine a light on the debris, so that an specialized AI in this thing, could know it's plastic by its colorations. Then, it might be feasible for this 'plastic-eater, to push the plastic things it grabs into some kind of expanding bag, that is bright orange and possibly rigged with a radio tracking device, and when the bag is mostly full, inject gas into it and close it off, and let it float to the surface, so that MANY of these floating bags could be corralled on the ocean surface. That way, this plastic eater robot would NOT have to keep diving and surfacing VERY often, which would require an enormous amount of time, electric battery energy, or fuel, if it can simply stay on the seabed most of the time when it ever gathers a full load of plastic debris to deliver to its handlers in the boats on the ocean top.
aki009
Another feel good project. Yes, let's pick up the minuscule percentage of the waste that's thinly spread all over the vast ocean floor at a concentration lesser than at which plastics exist in the Arizona desert, *instead* of targeting the major Asian rivers that contribute the vast majority of the plastics. This is just a massive misuse of resources, but as long as they don't waste public funds on it, have at it.
SibylTheHeretic
A gripper? Doesn't sound like a very efficient way to pick up trash. What happens to the trash that won't fit into the suction hose? The dingy and the ROV shown are not big enough. Maybe a barge and a something like a sand groomer like they use on the beaches.
buzzclick
This is just a drop in the proverbial bucket. Typically dealing with the symptoms instead of the cause. Even if it was upscaled a million times, it wouldn't be enough. Well, at least the intentions are positive.
Bricorn
If they can make this work in deep ocean, why not on land?
Heckler
Does the suction device filter micro-plastics? Does the mother-ship compact trash? Can refuse be used to build more ROVs? Can they develop AI to have robots ask dolphins where trash is located?
ljaques
Love the little WaterWall-Es. (Thanks, guz.) Nice thought, despite likely drop-in-the-bucket results. What's going to happen when they get to the hundreds of thousands of 55 gallon drums and the nuclear (or bio) waste which had been in them? Do they realized the danger they will be in? I wish 'em luck.