SeaClear Project Develops Robots to Pick Up Litter Underwater
Removing litter from oceans and seas is a costly and time-consuming process. As part of a European cooperative project, a team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) is developing a robotic system that uses machine learning methods to locate and collect waste underwater.
The seas and oceans currently contain somewhere between 26 million and 66 million tonnes of plastic waste, most of which is lying on the seafloor. This represents an enormous threat to marine plants and animals and to the ecological balance of the seas.
Removing waste from the waters is a complex and expensive process. It is often dangerous, too, because the work is generally done by scuba divers. The cleanup operations are usually limited to the water surface. In the SeaClear project, a team at TUM is working with eight European partner institutions to develop a system that combines four robotic components: an autonomous surface vehicle performs an initial scan of the sea bottom and localizes large litter pockets; next, an observation robot is lowered into the water to detect undersea litter and transmit additional information to the computers, such as close-up images of the sea bottom; in clear water and with good visibility, an aerial drone is used to identify further litter objects, and the resulting data are combined to generate a virtual map; a collection robot then visits defined points on the map and picks up litter using a gripper to place larger pieces in a basket that is towed to shore by the autonomous boat.
To achieve this, the team is using machine learning methods. An artificial intelligence (AI) module performs calculations and learns the conditions under which the robot will move in certain ways. This makes it possible to predict its behavior precisely.
When the SeaClear system is fully operational, it is expected to achieve 80 percent accuracy in classifying underwater litter and to successfully collect 90 percent of it. This is comparable to the results produced by scuba divers.
The initial trials with the prototype were carried out in October 2021 in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where the water is clear and visibility is excellent. Further trials are scheduled in the port of Hamburg in May 2022.