Trash-Eating Drones Are Taking on Water Pollution

An autonomous water drone lumbers around Ilfracombe Harbor on the North Devon Coast in Southwest England. Called WasteShark, the 5-by-3.5-feet catamaran-shaped “aquadrone” scoops up plastic, rubbish, and debris before the tide takes it out to sea.

Inspired by whale sharks that cruise around the water with their mouths open to suck in plankton and fish, WasteShark gobbles up over 1,000 pounds of waste that crosses its path daily. “We built it on the same principals as a whale shark. It is the size of an average coffee table and operates just like a robotic vacuum cleaner that goes around your room, sweeping the dust from your floors,” says Richard Hardiman, CEO of RanMarine Technology, the Netherlands-based startup that developed WasteShark.

England is not the only location deploying water drones to prevent plastic from entering the ocean and threatening marine life. Founded in 2016, RanMarine has used WasteSharks to help clean up the harbor waters in the United States, additional areas in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, South Africa, India, Denmark, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia. According to Hardiman, its customers include local and federal governments, port authorities, educational and commercial organizations.

He believes that the vessel is most effective at “waste chokeholds like harbors, rivers, and canals” because it can “enter hard-to-reach areas and easily navigate through water traffic to clean urban, rural, and industrial waterways.” Extending no deeper than a foot beneath the surface, the device glides through the water and its mouth-like opening in the front catches everything in its path. A metal-wire basket, located between its two hulls, filters out the water and collects solids that are brought back to the shore to be emptied, sorted, and recycled.

WasteShark can be steered manually via remote control or set up to swim autonomously; its collision-avoidance system employs remote-sensing technology called Lidar to spot obstacles, such as buoys and other crafts, and adjust its position accordingly.

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