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Thursday, May 19, 2022

This AI-enabled robotic boat cleans up harbors and rivers to keep plastic trash out of the ocean

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Millions of tons of plastic trash float down polluted urban rivers and industrial waterways and into the world’s oceans every year. Now a Hong Kong-based startup has come up with a solution to help stem these devastating flows of waste.

A small boat on the water with a city skyline in the background.
An early prototype navigates Hong Kong harbor. Photo: Clearbot.

Open Ocean Engineering has developed Clearbot Neo – a sleek AI-enabled robotic boat that autonomously collects tons of floating garbage that otherwise would wash into the Pacific from the territory’s busy harbor.

After a long developmental phase, its creators are planning to scale up and have fleets of Clearbot Neos cleaning up and protecting waters around the globe.

The United Nations estimates that as much as 95% of plastic pollution in the world’s seas gets there via 10 major rivers, eight of which are in Asia.

And there are fears that the volume of plastic trash flowing into marine environments could nearly triple by 2040, adding 23 to 37 million metric tons into the oceans per year. That would be equivalent to about 50 kgs of plastic garbage per meter of coastline worldwide.

“If we clean up our rivers and harbors, we are helping to clean up our oceans,” says Clearbot Neo’s co-creator Sidhant Gupta.

At just three meters long and pushed along by a solar battery-powered electric motor, the Clearbot Neo systematically moves up and down designated sections of water – much like how a household robot cleaner moves across a living room floor.

Unlike other and much larger marine trash collection solutions that are tackling pollution on the high seas, the compact nature of the Clearbot Neo makes it ideal for harbor, canal and river use.

It skims the surface and scoops up floating trash onto an on-board conveyer belt fitted near its bow between its dual hulls and into a holding bin near its stern.

Clearbot Neo uses AI to recognize and log the types of trash it collects and were.

It can bring in as much as a metric ton of refuse per day for recycling or disposal. And when fitted with a bespoke boom, it can tackle localized oil and fuel spills by collecting up to 15 liters of pollutant a day.

But this is more than just a simple clean-up machine. It also collects masses of data in the cloud using a two-camera detection system.

One camera surveys the water’s surface so the bot can identify rubbish and avoid marine life, navigational hazards and other vessels – making it safe and versatile for river and harbor work.

Garbage floating in water with computer graphics on the image.
With AI, Clearbot can identify and log the trash it collects. Photo: Clearbot.

The second camera photographs each piece of trash that lands on the conveyor belt and transmits its image and GPS location to the company’s data compliance system, which is hosted on Microsoft’s Azure platform.

When this data is put together with variables, like sea current and tide information, environmentalists and marine authorities have a head start on identifying the sources of the trash. Water quality data is also fed into the cloud.

Computer engineers Gupta and Utkarsh Goel founded their startup and began working on their Clearbot solution shortly after graduating from Hong Kong University in 2019.

Their inspiration came during a trip to the Indonesian vacation island of Bali where they witnessed how local workers would take to the water every day in small boats and even on surfboards to manually fish trash out of the sea to keep the shoreline and beaches safe and clean for tourists.

That got the two partners thinking: How could this slow and cumbersome process be automated?

Gupta and Goel developed a basic aluminum prototype in Bali and upon their return to Hong Kong, upgraded to a fiberglass version. A series of prototypes followed with the sleek Clearbot Neo being the latest model.

Two men sitting together.
Clearbot’s creators Sidhant Gupta (left) and Utkarsh Goel (right). Photo: Clearbot.

The most challenging part of the project was developing an AI model that could detect and identify waste in the water.

“We simply didn’t have the computing power available to train, run and test the models,” Gupta says. “This is exactly where Azure comes in. We ended up getting an AI for Earth grant from Microsoft in Spring 2020, and over the next year developed the AI model entirely on the Azure platform.

“It took a while because initially we didn’t have enough data to reasonably train it, but very quickly we ended up building out a model. We then put it on the robot and started training it for path planning, collecting waste and generating data.”

With the aid of GPS, Clearbot Neo can simultaneously clear the trash and produce a data point for each and every item collected — information that includes location, size, type, material and weight. After every mission, Azure’s AI capabilities have already classified the Clearbot Neo’s haul and added it to a growing database.



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