Feel Good Friday: How Drones are Mapping Our Ocean Pollution

Drones Combined with Artificial Intelligence are Guiding Conservationists’ Cleanups

Sat May 09 2020 00:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

In last week’s post, we highlighted the difference drone technology is making to combat the effects of climate change. This week, we’re pivoting to another human-made environmental crisis - the rising levels of plastic in our oceans. With 8 million tons of plastic being dumped into the ocean every year, by 2050, plastics will outnumber fish by weight.

Besides the immediate effects of harming marine life, the consumption of fish and other animals who’ve ingested plastics can lead to long-term health difficulties, including cancers and immune system deficiencies. Just last year, in a pilot study by the Environmental Science and Technology journal, it was found that the average person ingests 39,000-52,000 microplastic particles per year.

While we, as individual consumers, can take proactive measures to recycle and reduce our use of single-use plastics, scientists are measuring the effects of plastic pollution and reactively mapping the largest waste dumps for collection and disposal. Because of their easy deployability and precise measurements, drones are at the forefront of this effort.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Photo Credit: Forbes

Tracking Plastic Waste

While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has received a significant amount of media attention, less covered is how the trash got there in the first place. A project sponsored by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is hoping to change this by studying the effects of plastic pollution on the South Pacific’s uninhabited beaches. Here, drones are outfitted with hyperspectral cameras to differentiate plastic from its surroundings. Without human interference, the debris can be counted and quantified to figure out where it’s coming from. With this information, a plan can be put into place to remove the garbage and resolve the issue. Currently, this data is open-source and can be accessed for free here.

Cleanup Efforts

The Plastic Tide Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to mapping plastic waste in our oceans. By using a drone to fly over known garbage hot-spots and popular beaches, individuals can target their cleanup processes with an exact pinpoint of the damage. Combined with an artificial intelligence algorithm and user-submitted photos of trash (one 72-year-old volunteer has submitted over 7,000 pictures!), The Plastic Tide Project hopes to expedite their operations in the future further. Ideally, using this information to guide autonomous recovery vessels to the areas hardest-hit by the pollution for quick removal.

While we’re still in the early stages of using drones for this type of relief effort, studies like the Remote Sensing of Marine Litter and those mentioned above prove that remote sensing of marine plastic is possible. At a lower cost than airplane imagery and higher quality than satellites, we expect to see more and more drones used in this field of work.

If you’re interested in learning more about drone mapping in conservation, read our piece on the Great Barrier Reef or contact us.


Get drones working for your business.