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Cleaning up our oceans with smart robots

EU-backed researchers are deploying a fleet of autonomous robots to tackle litter on the ocean surface and floor.

Climate Change and Environment icon Climate Change and Environment

The EU-funded SeaClear project’s successful development of an autonomous robotic system that can find and remove litter from the ocean floor has led to further European funding under a second project, SeaClear2.0. Launched in January 2023, SeaClear2.0 is now developing a holistic approach to the problem of marine litter, going beyond technological innovation to engage and empower communities in finding solutions to marine litter pollution. The vast majority of litter in our oceans ends up on the seabed, but using divers to remove it is expensive and endangers human lives. Three years into the project and with 1 year still to go, SeaClear has already succeeded in demonstrating that robots are able to autonomously search for, identify and collect litter from the seabed. Prof. Bart De Schutter of SeaClear and SeaClear2.0 project coordinator Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands provides details in a news item posted on the university’s website: “With SeaClear1, we have been able to achieve the design of two components – an exploration robot, which can not only detect litter but differentiate it from fish and other creatures, and a collection robot, which moves to the location of the litter and using a gripper, picks it up and takes [it] to the collection basket.”

A new and improved system

Building on the success of the first project, SeaClear2.0 will deploy a fleet of smart robots that will not only tackle surface litter but also be able to go deeper than before and lift heavier waste, such as tyres and concrete blocks. The system will include aerial drones, underwater rovers, autonomous surface ships and custom-built robotic grippers. With multiple robots involved, proper coordination is vital. “You have to make sure that the multiple robots are not interfering with each other,” explains Prof. De Schutter. “As the underwater vessels are connected by cables to the mothership, you have to make sure they don’t become entangled yet can completely cover the entire sea-bed and detect and collect all of the trash.” SeaClear2.0 will improve the robotic system’s sensing with high-resolution sonar and microplastic and electromagnetic sensors. A smart, manoeuvrable grapple will be developed to pick up the bulkier, heavier litter. A new tender with flexible partitioning chambers for different litter fractions will be designed to carry this litter. An autonomous mobile team able to operate in confined and shallow areas will tackle surface litter. The system will be demonstrated in three full-scale demonstrations and three pilot tests in the Mediterranean. In addition to its technological solutions, SeaClear will also focus on social interventions. Actions to empower and engage citizens will include geographical storytelling, a gamified litter reporting app, clean-ups, exhibitions, competitions and artistic installations. The project team will also recommend better sorting and recycling solutions. In addition, it will work with local communities to address current policy gaps. SeaClear (SEarch, identificAtion and Collection of marine Litter with Autonomous Robots) ends in December 2023. SeaClear2.0 (Scalable Full-cycle Marine Litter Remediation in the Mediterranean: Robotic and Participatory Solutions) ends in December 2026. For more information, please see: SeaClear project website


SeaClear, SeaClear2.0, litter, marine, ocean, ocean surface, seabed, robot, autonomous

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