Trash-eating drone tackles water pollution

Trash-eating drone tackles water pollution

Exclusive interview: H2O Global News’ Sion Geschwindt spoke with RanMarine CEO, Richard Hardiman, about water quality and how their autonomous drone – WasteShark – tackles polluted waterways

Published by H2O Global News

August is Water Quality Month – a time dedicated to the freshwater resources upon which we all depend. Maintaining and improving water quality is essential, but challenges such as pollution hamper these efforts.

Inland waterways like rivers and lakes are particularly susceptible. Chemicals, algal blooms, heavy metals, and bacteria are among the many threats to fresh water quality. Another is plastic.

While we tend to think of plastic pollution as a problem only affecting the world’s oceans, a lot of it originates and collects in freshwater systems before even reaching the sea.

Clearing up inland waters and harbours of plastic waste is crucial, but no easy task. To tackle the problem head on, Dutch start-up RanMarine have developed an autonomous water surface vehicle (ASV) – called WasteShark – which removes floating pollution such as plastics, algae and biomass from water bodies throughout the world.

The plastic problem

Plastics got us to the moon, facilitated huge advancements in medicine and transformed the manufacturing industry. The world as we know it today would be unrecognisable if it weren’t for this durable, versatile, and often indispensable, material.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s. Yet, about 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.

The characteristics that render plastics so useful, also make them an environmental nightmare. Most of us have witnessed the shocking images of marine life tangled in fishing nets or beached whales who have ingested too much plastic waste. But the impacts go beyond the obvious.

River are the greatest source of plastic pollution to the ocean

Plastics break down into finer and finer particles – known as microplastics – which are often undetectable to the human eye. Microplastics can kill aquatic life and leach harmful chemicals into surrounding water bodies. These particles have been found at the top of Mount Everest and the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest point in the ocean.

According to a study published last year, rivers are the dominant source of plastic pollution in the marine environment. Cleaning up waste before it enters the ocean is crucial.

If you have ever participated in a beach or river clean-up you will know that collecting waste manually is no easy feat. However, technology aimed at simplifying the task of removing water surface pollution has been scarce to date – precisely why RanMarine designed WasteShark.


WasteShark is an easy to operate, carbon neutral, robotic, waste-eating-machine. The drone can collect 500kg of plastic waste and biomass every day, while gathering water quality data in the process.

“We aim to improve water quality on two levels,” said RanMarine CEO, Richard Hardiman. “Firstly, by removing plastic, waste, and excess algae from the water surface, and secondly by gathering data on water quality changes and possible sources of pollution.”

RanMarine CEO, Richard Hardiman, stands next to a WasteShark drone

“Water pollution is fast becoming an everyday issue for both governments and citizens” – Richard Hardiman

RanMarine aim to empower people and organizations across the planet to restore aquatic environments. Their data-driven autonomous technology empowers cities, municipalities, ports, marinas, waste managers, scientists and action groups, to clean-up and monitor their waters.

“Water pollution is fast becoming an everyday issue for both governments and citizens,” said Hardiman. “Using robots to continuously remove trash means we won’t see ugly build-ups of trash on the water, lose plastic to the oceans and see further damage to the environment.”

Accurate data regarding water quality is essential for water managers to make informed decisions. WasteShark has the ability to run the same route multiple times over successive days, tracking the movement, dispersion and potential improvement of the water over time using the same GPS coordinates. It can test for water quality parameters such as temperature, pH, conductivity, depth, turbidity, fluorometers, nitrates and other chemicals.

“We need to understand what is in our water, where that pollutant is coming from and be able to create predictions about when anomalies may occur or track down the offending polluter. The more accessible that data is, the better,” said Hardiman.

Smart cities    

Let’s face it, no one wants to spend all day every day cleaning up trash from waterways – but it’s a task that must be done. That is why automated, robotic solutions like WasteShark make so much sense – they do the dirty work, so we don’t have to.

To make the process even easier, RanMarine is currently working on a docking station that allows the drones to dock autonomously, remove their waste and recharge before going out on another mission, with very little human intervention.

WasteShark helps build smart cities

WasteSharks can be found operating across the world, from Singapore, to Sydney and Cape Town. They are helping many places throughout the world embark on their smart city journey.

Smart cities understand that designing better urban areas requires adopting digital technology that improves the well-being of its citizens and equips decision-makers with actionable data.

With 70% of the world’s population predicted to live in cities by 2050, deploying smart technologies like WasteShark can make urban areas more liveable, safe and sustainable. Is it going to solve the entire plastic crisis? Definitely not, but it’s a start.


Why we need to save our mangrove forests

Our destructive habits have left an indelible mark on our planet, and finally, we are starting to pay the price. The recent natural disasters around the world, including the high temperatures, floods and wildfires are just some examples of what effect climate change is presenting.

Since 1970, CO2 emissions have increased by approximately 90%. With the Covid recovery now in full swing, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase by 1.5 billion tons this year, the second-largest increase in history, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

Consequently, there has been a major shift of focus towards the rehabilitation and preservation of blue carbon ecosystems to appropriate them as carbon dioxide sinks.

Unfortunately, due to rising sea temperatures, overfishing, and pollution, coastal systems are being utterly destroyed thus ultimately limiting the extent of their ability to absorb CO2.

Take mangrove forests, for example.

They are some of the most carbon-rich forests on earth, richer even than terrestrial forests. Not only do they protect coasts from erosion and damage caused by storms while maintaining water quality, but they also fix, release, and sequester more carbon by area than all other coastal habitats. It is no wonder then that conservationists and scientists are doing so much to preserve these natural habitats.

Mangrove deforestation and deterioration has been on the increase, due mainly to aquaculture, overfishing, and the effects of pollution. Add to that rising sea temperature and more violent storms and you understand how their root systems become weakened, causing them to destabilize and literally wash away. The destruction of these mangroves has a significant impact on our planet.

Over the last 50 years, mangrove forests have declined by 30-50% and these stressors are causing mangroves to release carbon, rather than sequester it, which is obviously a huge problem.

According to beachpedia, mangrove ecosystems are estimated to sequester and store about 3,767 tons of CO2 equivalent per hectare of mangrove habitat. Mangrove deforestation, on the other hand, accounts for 10% of all CO2 released from global deforestation, even though they only account for 0.7% of global tropical forest area. Let that sink in.

Mangrove trees, which have an odd appearance and look as if they are standing on stilts, can be found along ocean coastlines throughout the tropics. There are reportedly approximately 80 different species of mangrove trees and the forests only grow at tropical and subtropical latitudes near the equator. According to the World Resource Institute, the world lost 192,000 hectares (474,000 acres) of mangroves from 2001 to 2012, a total loss of 1.38% since 2000 (or 0.13% annually).

Coastal areas are protected from storm surge, erosion and dreaded tsunamis by mangrove swamps. Conservation programs often adopt projects aimed at protecting mangrove ecosystems due to their uniqueness and the protection against erosion they provide.

What is destroying mangrove forests?

Apart from the obvious (rising sea temperatures, pollution, and storms), you may be surprised to learn that the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that shrimp farming caused approximately a quarter of the destruction of mangrove forests.

According to WWF, shrimp is the most valuable traded marine product in the world.

Today farmed shrimp (also known as shrimp aquaculture) is a $12 – $15 billion industry. Shrimp production has one of the highest growth rates in aquaculture, at an approximate rate of 10% annually. Farmed shrimp accounts for 55% of the shrimp produced globally. In an effort to save shrimp farmers the exorbitant expense of having to erect high elevation water pumps for their farming operations, governments and development aid agencies have been promoting shrimp aquaculture near tidal areas as a path to alleviate poverty. This has unfortunately been promoted at the expense of wetland ecosystems, proving once again that human survival often comes at the expense of the ecosystems that we actually depend on for our survival as a species. A case of short-term gains over long-term sustainability. Or to put it differently, humans shooting themselves in the foot once again.

In terms of mangrove loss, Asia is guilty of the largest destruction with almost double the global average, despite this region boasting the world’s largest mangrove area.

Zero mangrove loss

 According to the World Resources Institute, The Sundarbans (10,000 square km, about three-fifths of which is in Bangladesh) is home to the world’s largest area of mangrove forest, spanning approximately one million hectares. The forest is a famous biodiversity hotspot, home to 35 reptiles, 42 mammals, and 270 species of birds. The forest also protects threatened and endangered species like the Indian python, Bengal tiger, and the estuarine crocodile. It is interesting to note that it’s the only area known to have tigers that are ecologically adapted to mangrove habitats.

The Sundarbans is teeming with dozens of reptile and amphibian species. Crocodiles, Indian pythons, cobras, and marine turtles can be found in abundance in this biosphere. Established in 1984, Sundarbans National Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 as well as a biosphere reserve.

How do we protect our mangrove forests?

 It’s easy to feel somewhat helpless and stressed after reading this blog. However, there are things you can do to help reverse the destruction of these important forests.

An organization doing amazing work around mangrove forest preservation is The Global Mangrove Alliance – a new collaboration between Conservation International (CI) and its partners.

In terms of supporting the preservation of mangrove forests, The Global Mangrove Alliance recommends that you firstly look for sustainable alternatives to eating farmed shrimp from mangrove areas. Secondly, they suggest finding governmental and local conservation organizations in your area that are focused on conserving mangrove forests and try to support them in any way you can. Conservation of mangrove ecosystems includes education, policy, science, and many other things.

We can either sit back and say it’s someone else’s problem, or we can do something by supporting the dedicated organizations that are actually saving these important habitats. After all, saving mangrove forests ultimately means saving ourselves.

Will you support a mangrove forest preservation organization today?

Smart Cities’ Challenge: Bridging Data, In Real Time

“Smart cities” are a technology-driven approach to many previously irretractable urban problems, from alleviating congestion to improving pedestrian safety to enhancing water quality. While tier-1 cities such as San Francisco and Denver may come to mind as leaders in smart city technology deployment, look no further than Chattanooga, Tennessee. This picturesque city, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is an example of a smart city employing cutting-edge approaches to improve residents’ lives and mobility.

Kevin Comstock, smart city director for the City of Chattanooga, recently shared his experiences and insights on making the shift to smart in a panel joined by Richard Hardiman, CEO and founder of RanMarine, and William Muller, vice president of business development for Seoul Robotics. I had the opportunity to moderate the discussion.

Panelists are optimistic about the inroads smart cities will be making in transportation and civic life over the coming decade. Comstock sees smart cities paving the way for improved health, energy and mobility, “key areas smart cities can focus on and make tangible improvements over the next five to ten years.”

Data is the key, and is now available from a range of sources across cities. Muller says the key to smart city growth will be bringing this data together from different technologies and systems, “and making it useful as a whole big picture.” “Open” is the operative word, he adds. “Data is going to need to be accessible to many different parties, from connected vehicles, to transportation systems, to a person down the street looking at his cell phone.”

Chattanooga has been taking these steps, implementing a centralized hub that monitors real-time information on the health of its transportation network, as well as cameras that detect vehicles — both cars and bicycles — for better operation of traffic signals. The city has also been tying its databases together from sources across both the city and county to compile information about delays, congestion, construction, where parking or transit options are most available, and providing that information to the public in an open architecture format.
Comstock’s team has also been working with academia on a US Department of Transportation connected vehicle program test bed project which provides Chattanooga with one of the first connected vehicle projects in the country. The project is intended to provide connection between freight, transit and emergency vehicles, as well as monitor pollution and self-adjusting signals to compensate for increases in the pollution and other factors. “At the end of the day, businesses want to get their goods or deliver their goods,” says Comstock. “The more robust and smart the system, the more reliable sustainable system or delivery platform, the better off they’re going to be. The economic development piece of that becomes more in play at that point in time.”

Connected vehicles have caught the attention of many smart city planners, but the proliferation if autonomous vehicles is still some time away. “I don’t believe we’re in autonomous vehicles state yet, but we’ll definitely be there over the coming decade,” says Comstock. “We have to have connectivity before we have autonomy. The first generation of autonomous vehicles “are going to deliver pizza, groceries and packages before they ever deliver people,” Comstock cautions. “Until those platforms are discovered and vetted out, a certain safety protocol has been addressed.”

Autonomous vehicles currently have found their place in “very active in heavy industries, especially mining, and things like that, where the environments are more conducive to that technology,” says Muller. “The same technology developed for those industries, specifically the 3D data, 3D LIDAR sensors and 3D radars, are going to be beneficial for smart cities.”

Expect to see increased automation as well across the board, Hardiman says — a point demonstrated by the Covid crisis. “When we have a complete shutdown of the cities because of a pandemic, with the loss of taxes, we realize we need to rely on nonhuman functionality in many ways. Robotics is a potential cure-all to the next pandemic or the next event. We can survive better as a city, as a community, using robotics.”

The key to these efforts is data, and the ability to move it quickly to where it’s needed. “We have an organization within the city government that’s called the Office of Operational Management and Open Data,” Comstock explains. “We look at the resources that we have, the different data sets, different databases, and pull information into a centralized location.” One aspect is development of a LIDAR-based data system “to look at pedestrian safety as a key component of utilizing technology and help solve the problem.”

Another initiative Chattanooga is undertaking is “looking at a predictive crash model — taking and aggregating data from across the city in conjunction with the police department and others, to pull together a roadmap and this general understanding of what our pain points are, and how we can help mitigate some of those things before they become a problem. It’s about proactive thinking about these things, applying them in new ways.”

Even for the smallest-scale project, such as making an intersection or crossing smart, is the large number of components involved,” says Muller. “A lot of different technologies are needed to solve singular problems within a particular intersection.”

Along with open data, another challenge for smart cities is achieving interoperability between cities and government agencies at all levels, Comstock points out. “We recognize that the interoperability between a city like Chattanooga and state departments of transportation or the other agencies that surround us, like Atlanta or Nashville, that implementations performed here need to work in other locations, and people that come in from those locations need to work here,” says Comstock. “There needs to be an Internet of Things approach to how we look at technologies. For example, right now you can use a cell phone. It doesn’t matter who the manufacturer is, or who your carrier is. You can call anyone in the world at any point in time. The agnostic features of that need to be replicated in a smart cities environment.”

Read article on Forbes