Drones will answer the big pollution questions

Could the new drone platform look like this? Image: Drone Major Could the new drone platform look like this? Image: Drone Major

The answer to the rubbish in our oceans “is already in our hands”, Robert Garbett, CEO of Drone Major Group told Stevie Knight.

To find a solution he intends to bring together a diverse range of companies which span the globe, from Denmark to South Africa, the US to the UK.

There are challenges that have avoided detailed analysis till now: “How much plastic is in the ocean?  Where is it?  What effect is it having on sea animals and how deep does the issue go? Past attempts to answer these questions have proved difficult at best.” However, he believes that real answers – and solutions – are close to hand.

Garbett pointed to a “new wave” of converging technologies, many of which are already in production, “that are able to operate across a number of different environments”. Not least of which are drones.

The idea is to develop a true hybrid: an Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) could be tailored to act as a long-range platform. This base would likely be along the lines of the “virtually unsinkable”, lightweight catamaran hulls developed by US company, Advanced Marine Technologies said Garbett.

On this will be installed a tethered drone – tethered to provide a way of landing it easily in rough conditions and to bring in extremely good quality video images – that can ‘spot’ potential areas of floating plastic, flying, he explained, “high enough to give a very good coverage of the sea’s surface”. The identification process would probably be carried out by recognition software developed by South African based Data-Shack which has proved itself in the AI security world.

The autonomous craft will then direct itself to the troublespot and start to suck in plastic or surface oil – again, recognition software will eject anything that could be a sea animal: while not possible just a year or two ago, that level of differentiation is plausible now.

Scaled small enough not to be a hazard to shipping the hull will still be big enough to hold a couple of power sources: solar and hydroelectric energy tied with batteries could provide slow propulsion power as well as power simple processing machinery for oil and shredding/treating plastics. Garbett’s estimate at present puts the cat around the 17m mark.

In the water, an AUV – again tethered for similar reasons – will bring in samples from the water column, able to gather information on oil spills or plastic concentrations in the food chain, sending this data back to a base station for research.

“Third phase could attempt to clean up the underwater area, though that’s more difficult,” he said.

As the design relies to a great extent on already proven technologies, “it avoids too much deep R&D, focusing mainly on integration”, making it cost-effective to produce a fleet of these long-range, high endurance vehicles that could patrol our oceans without intervention.

Finally, Garbett is looking toward a buy-in from big, “environmentally sensitive” companies who want to make a point of not just being part of the problem, but part of the solution.

Drone Major isn’t alone. Another idea puts an eye in the sky but from a port base, Shirley Salzman of Percepto told MJ.

Percepto’s answer goes well beyond other still novel, but ‘line-of-sight’ airborne drones. “Why this makes sense is that it can investigate areas that are no longer in view, or keep checking areas for, say, pollution patterns,” she explained. Oil spills, waste-water dumping and sulphurous smoke from soon-to-be illegal HFO could be spotted from the air, even at night.

Percepto’s ‘drone in a box’ is homed in its own, tamper-proof container and recharging point, which it can return and dock with on auto. One important point she made is that it “could be told to follow a particular signature”, and will be able to alert the harbour authority, giving details on the pollution incident – and the potentially offending vessel.

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