Students in the UAE are developing a state-of-the-art floating robot in an effort to help clean up the world’s oceans.
Researchers at Abu Dhabi University (ADU) have created an autonomous prototype which works in conjunction with an airborne drone.
The drone scans the sea’s surface from above, identifying areas of dense marine litter that might include plastic bottles or discarded fishing nets.
It then relays the location of the debris to the solar-powered robot, which sets a course to the area before deploying a large net to collect it.
Speaking to The National, Dr Mohammed Ghazal, an ADU associate professor and the project's coordinator, said the technology could prove invaluable in the fight against growing marine pollution.
Scientists estimate there is currently 150 million tonnes of plastic floating in the world’s oceans, causing huge damage to marine life.
“There are other solutions to this particular problem but it seems the efforts are always manual – people riding in boats to pick this [litter] up,” Dr Ghazal said.
“It doesn’t feel like a very sustainable solution. We’re delighted with the progress we’ve made so far. We can see that we’re onto something.”
Known as the IntelliSeaCleaner, the 20cm by 15cm floating prototype has been designed and built at ADU using 3D printer technology.
The collaborative system works by first deploying a drone to capture aerial video of the sea’s surface for analysis by the robot.
Once suspected patches of debris are identified, the vessel charts a course to its location before deploying a wide drag net to capture the rubbish. Similar technology could also be used to clean up oil spills.
To date, the miniature model has only been tested in laboratory conditions, with developers still uncertain about how it will function in open water.
“This [project] has forced us to look at many perspectives – energy, path planning and machine learning,” said Dr Ghazal.
“We have a prototype and we’re able to drive it remotely, but we’re finding there’s a problem with wind and waves which affects the control.”
The research team revealed the project’s drone had recently been sent to the University of Louisville in Kentucky, United States, for flight tests.
Next month, additional teams will begin building a full-size version of the model, with developers aiming to complete the second prototype within a year.
However, the UAE students admit significant technical hurdles to the project have yet to be overcome.
How to ensure control in choppy seas is one major issue, with how to empty a full net most efficiently being another.
The students are currently planning on rerouting the vessel to land to dump its collected waste or to a nearby, larger vessel.
“What we didn’t anticipate is that everything in the sea is tougher than lab conditions,” said Dr Ghazal. “We’ll need to focus on this.”
As well as Dr Ghazal, other ADU academics involved in the project include systems experts Dr Anas Al Tarabsheh and Dr Mohammad Al Khedher.
Among the ADU students involved are Dana Al Manla, Tasnim Al As’ad, Leen Al Assadi, Eiman Al Naqbi, Yasmina Al Khalil and Omar Al Ali.