In a river in the Danish city of Århus, a small machine called the WasteShark now autonomously sails through the water collecting trash, bringing it to shore, and then recharging itself. Soon, a drone will begin flying through the air to help: Using a special lens that collects data to be crunched by a machine learning algorithm, that drone can identify pieces of plastic or other garbage and direct the sailing drone to pick them up. The system can also identify oil spills, which the WasteShark can help clean up with a special filter.
While the small trash-eating drone isn’t new, the addition of the flying drone makes it possible to find more garbage more quickly. The sailing drone also hasn’t been used to clean up oil spills in the past, because without the drone overhead scanning the water, it wouldn’t be able to identify the oil.
This type of work isn’t a complete solution to our waste problem; stopping the flow of plastic waste into the ocean will require rethinking how products are packaged and sold and building better recycling infrastructure. But these types of tools can help governments better understand the scale of the challenge. And systems that catch trash in rivers, as the project in Denmark does, can be a final safeguard to stop plastic and other pollution before it drifts into the ocean, breaks down into tiny fragments, and ends up being eaten by fish or birds.
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