A 25-year-old Dutchman named Boyan Slat alternately hailed as “an ocean action hero,” and a “wunderkind” by the publication Maritime Executive has for years waged war against plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
It is a foe, that same outlet noted, that is “intent on taking over the planet,” which is unfortunately not hyperbole. According to the United Nations, some eight million tons of plastic waste winds up in the oceans each year, and over time it breaks down into microplastics. There are some 16 million tons of the latter material beneath the waves, according to a recent study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), and it poses a threat to marine life, and by extension, global food chains.
The Ocean Clean Up
Slat, who at age 18 founded a nonprofit known as The Ocean Cleanup, first centered his efforts on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area twice the size of the state of Texas that stands as the world’s largest concentration of plastic pollution. Now he has turned his attention to the world’s rivers, the source of much of the plastic that finds its way to the oceans.
His weapons of choice are robotics––starting with a 2,000-foot-long unmanned floating barrier given the name Wilson. While the U-shaped apparatus failed on its initial foray toward the Garbage Patch, splitting in two late in 2018, an overhauled version of the same structure was launched in June 2019. It succeeded in bringing home some 60 bags of trash, which were recycled and sold as sunglasses beginning in October 2020. The proceeds will be used to fund subsequent cleanup efforts.
As for the rivers, Slat’s organization earlier this year deployed solar-powered autonomous trash collectors called “Interceptors” to waterways in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Dominican Republic, with plans to hit the world’s 1,000 most polluted rivers by 2025.
“We accept that we won’t deliver magic in one go,” he told CNN. “But we’re doing this, step by step.”
Robotics Against Pollution
Slat is far from alone in using robotics in the fight against pollution. Other enterprises have, in fact, developed bots that can consume water pollution or collect river trash. While these robots might not look as futuristic as robots in classic sci-fi movies, they have proven to be effective, no matter their use.
They range from those that can plant trees 10 times faster than humans to monitor plant growth in adverse weather conditions. Those that can monitor coral reefs to those that can kill invasive species and even those that venture into sewers reduce carbon emissions.
Particularly important are those robots used to alleviate air pollution, which according to the World Health Organization, kills seven million people around the world every year and leaves 90 percent of the global population breathing unhealthy air. That led the Integral Platform for Climate Initiatives to partner with Russia’s ITMO University in 2018 to develop drones equipped with sensors to monitor air quality (and bots to gather data about water quality).
Similarly, equipped drones were tested in Greece in 2019, as air pollution is a severe problem there. While those on the ground had previously performed air-quality evaluations, the drones’ sensors allowed for an in-depth examination of such things as air temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, and levels of various gases, including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
And in Thailand, meanwhile, a fleet of drones was deployed in 2019 in an attempt to spray pollution out of the sky. According to the Bangkok Post, these aircraft dispensed water and a “non-hazardous chemical spray,” and government officials claimed that the drones were able to lower the level of a particularly harmful toxin.
But robotics is truly poised to make a wide-ranging impact. Consider, for example, the robotic boats developed by MIT in partnership with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). They measure ocean depth, detect leaked chemicals, or collect other samples of interest. While previous efforts in this realm have suffered from a lack of efficiency or accuracy — i.e., the robots tended to explore uninteresting areas and/or net useless samples — this updated technology uses probability to find the most promising places.
One robotic boat found the most exposed part of a coral reef in Barbados — crucial to assessing the impact of climate change — and another collected as many as eight times as many samples as previous methods.
Victoria Preston, one of the authors of a 2019 paper on robotic boats, told SciTechDaily that with the older technology, “it’s easy to think you’ve found gold, but really you’ve found fool’s gold.” Now, that is far less likely.
Elsewhere, robots have helped improve factories through automated processes that measure energy efficiency and environmental dangers. Through IoT-based monitoring, robots can assess toxicity levels in factories and on the field. This type of environmental monitoring can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Robots can even sort through materials to determine which parts can be recycled.
But back to Slat for just a moment. According to a 2018 Time Magazine profile, the problem posed by plastic pollution first caught his attention when at age 16 he saw more plastic bags than fish during a diving trip to Greece. He set aside his aerospace engineering studies to found The Ocean Cleanup in 2013. He now serves as its CEO.
While Slat’s organization, The Ocean Cleanup, has done its part to advance the robotics used in the fight against pollution, Slat is fully aware that the problem won’t be eradicated anytime soon.
“Big problems,” he told Time, “require big solutions.”
Certainly, there will be a need for even bigger solutions. But suffice it to say that the awareness is there, as is the resolve. It is as important a battle as any and one humankind cannot afford to lose.