Autonomous Drones Could Help Fight Water Pollution

Advanced technology that started out as a way to eliminate plastic waste from waterways may also predict ways to facilitate sustainable use of ocean resources—and even fight climate change.

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

An autonomous water drone lumbers around Ilfracombe Harbor on the North Devon Coast in Southwest England. Called WasteShark, the 5-by-3.5-feet catamaran-shaped “aquadrone” scoops up plastic, rubbish, and debris before the tide takes it out to sea.

Inspired by whale sharks that cruise around the water with their mouths open to suck in plankton and fish, WasteShark gobbles up over 1,000 pounds of waste that crosses its path daily. “We built it on the same principals as a whale shark. It is the size of an average coffee table and operates just like a robotic vacuum cleaner that goes around your room, sweeping the dust from your floors,” says Richard Hardiman, CEO of RanMarine Technology, the Netherlands-based startup that developed WasteShark.

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England is not the only location deploying water drones to prevent plastic from entering the ocean and threatening marine life. Founded in 2016, RanMarine has used WasteSharks to help clean up the harbor waters in the United States, additional areas in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, South Africa, India, Denmark, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia. According to Hardiman, its customers include local and federal governments, port authorities, educational and commercial organizations.

He believes that the vessel is most effective at “waste chokeholds like harbors, rivers, and canals” because it can “enter hard-to-reach areas and easily navigate through water traffic to clean urban, rural, and industrial waterways.” Extending no deeper than a foot beneath the surface, the device glides through the water and its mouth-like opening in the front catches everything in its path. A metal-wire basket, located between its two hulls, filters out the water and collects solids that are brought back to the shore to be emptied, sorted, and recycled.

WasteShark can be steered manually via remote control or set up to swim autonomously; its collision-avoidance system employs remote-sensing technology called Lidar to spot obstacles, such as buoys and other crafts, and adjust its position accordingly.

A Sea of Plastic

Hardiman’s goal is to make a dent in the vast amount of plastic—bottles, toys, bags, fishing nets, and more—choking seas across the world. “Too much plastic is entering our oceans, threatening marine life, polluting the water, and causing immense harm to world’s ecosystems.”

“Too much plastic is entering our oceans, threatening marine life, polluting the water, and causing immense harm to world’s ecosystems.”

—Richard Hardiman, CEO, RanMarine Technology

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. A staggering eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, according to a 2015 report published in Science. That’s equivalent to dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute. And if no action is taken, this figure is expected to grow to two trucks per minute by 2030 and four trucks per minute by 2050, according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

Learning Machines

While plastics waste accumulating in the ocean continues to be a serious concern for Hardiman, he has found an additional mission for WasteShark: to monitor water quality. The aquadrones now scan their immediate environment as they swim in waterways catching plastic litter. It comes with 15 sensor options to scan and collect data about the water quality of the harbor, river, or canal.

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“A WasteShark tells you the DNA of the water it is traveling through by continually measuring environmental data, such as depth, salinity, chemical makeup, pH balance, and temperature. Using 4G connectivity, it transmits the data to a cloud-based data portal in real time for immediate reporting and analysis,” explains Hardiman. The data, he adds, can be used to help verify compliance with pollution regulations or to identify potential contaminants early to minimize impact and help make water safe.

That’s not all. The water drones come with algorithms to learn from the data they collect. “This is a learning machine,” Hardiman continues. “If you manually guide it through the harbor once, it will store the information about the position of all static objects in the water. And next time it enters water in autonomous mode, it knows how to find its way around the obstacles.”

WasteSharks, he adds, can work for up to 10 hours on a single charge and collect 1,000 pounds of waste before returning to the collection point. But they can collect much more waste by working collectively as a swarm, sharing information they collect via a central hub. “If one drone fills up quickly in an area on a certain day [and a certain tide or wind condition], then the hub will autonomously deploy additional drones to the area whenever similar weather or tidal conditions are replicated,” he explains.

Next, Hardiman plans to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to anticipate and predict customers’ needs based on future weather patterns. “Our predictive algorithm will warn customers of potential issues even before they happen. For example, if their system sees predictions of heavy sunshine for the next few days, it will tell customers to prepare for an algae outbreak and deploy more sharks,” he explains.

Expecting to add WasteSharks with predictive algorithms sometime next year, Hardiman plans to shift his business to “more data-driven projects, such as aquaculture” or fish farming. “That is where data such as temperature and toxicology of water is critical to identify measurable patterns and help farmers make strategic decisions,” he points out.

And what started as a way to eliminate plastic waste from waterways will now start predicting the best ways to facilitate sustainable use of ocean resources—and fight the climate crisis. As Hardiman sums up, “It’s all about maintaining water health, from collecting water waste and data to becoming a data-informed prediction engine.”