DUBROVNIK, September 21, 2020 — Robots and ocean waste: the SeaClear Project looks at the future. With testing sites in Hamburg and Dubrovnik, the organization intends to reduce pollution in coastal waters, using autonomous robots.
The European Union granted 5 million EUR to the research, which aims to categorize and collect underwater litter. The funds come from the Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, which promotes Europe’s global competitiveness.
Partners of SeaClear include institutions from Croatia, Germany, Romania, and the Netherlands. Among Croatian institutes are the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics, Croatia’s Regional Agency DUNEA, and the University of Dubrovnik.
SeaClear to Develop Autonomous Vehicles
SeaClear uses debris mapping and litter classification to study the correlation between surface and underwater litter. Today’s oceans contain between 26 and 66 million tons of waste. Approximately 94 percent is located on the seafloor. The European program will build underwater, surface, and aerial vehicles to collect litter through robots, at depths until 30 meters.
Each partner focuses on different research areas with one common goal: operating the robots autonomously, without remote human intervention. It would be the first time that vehicles are used for collecting underwater waste. So far, it has always been a difficult operation, which required human divers.
First, the Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) maps the litter on the seafloor to let researchers know in which areas to focus. Then, another UUV classifies the waste and the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) uses a custom-designed gripper with a suction device to collect the garbage. Finally, the same ROV discards it to the collective bin.
In the two case studies of the project they make use of robots. One focuses on port cleaning (with research taking place in Hamburg), while the second focuses on a touristic area, specifically in Dubrovnik.
SeaClear Test Site Based in Dubrovnik
“The coastal scenario in Dubrovnik, Croatia, addresses the tourism sector and is aimed specifically to clean the waters at tourist hot-spots,” project manager Johannes Oeffner said to Science Business.
Dubrovnik is a valuable test site not only for its touristic fame, but also because of its coral reef. SeaClear aims to find a way to protect fragile marine ecosystems while studying underwater waste. When the robots will be deployed, artificial intelligence and optical sensors will distinguish the coral reefs, avoiding difficult procedures to collect litter.
While research started in the spring of 2020, Covid-19 didn’t stop it. The role of the University of Dubrovnik centers around navigation, debris classification, mapping, and SeaClear’s cost efficiency.
University in Charge of Developing Robotic System
Doctor Ivana Palunko is an associate professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Dubrovnik. She is the leading scientist for the institution, where she coordinates a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Laboratory for Intelligent Autonomous Systems (LARIAT).
“The university’s role in the SeaClear project is on the development of an autonomous heterogeneous robotic system together with other technical partners on the project,” Doctor Palunko said.
The preliminary tests in Dubrovnik started in July and researchers focused on visibility and on identifying possible issues with weather conditions. The team captured aerial footage of the area and it spotted problems with light reflection during specific times of the day.
Litter Collection from Mariculture in Mali Ston
After mapping, the university and DUNEA organized a marine litter clean-up to categorize underwater waste. Thirteen divers swam into Mali Ston Bay and they collected litter from the ‘maricultures’ in the area. Afterwards, the researchers will analyze it and categorize it by origin, composition, and type.
Mariculture (or aquaculture) is the cultivation of marine organisms for food production in enclosed sections such as ponds or tanks of the open ocean. For example, the most famous type of mariculture is the one that produces shellfish or oysters.
A 2015 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revealed that Croatia’s aquaculture production was 16,875 tonnes, with a total value of about EUR 102,7 million. Marine fish was the best seller, making up 66 percent of the production, while shellfish accounted for only 5 percent.
Impact of Pollution on Habitat, Genes and Environment
If not monitored, aquaculture’s environmental effects can cause genetic pollution, habitat modification, and waste from cage cultures. In fact, it is the same waste that was recovered during the Mali Ston Bay clean-up.
The results of both tests are crucial to SeaClear’s mission of cleaning the seabed. The university’s research in Dubrovnik will provide better conditions for the vehicles to operate in safety and at their best. When researchers know where the litter comes from; they can offer ideas on how to avoid underwater pollution.
According to National Geographic, there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Around four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. Causes of marine pollution include fisheries, port development, and coastal tourism. These are the exact issues the SeaClear project aims to tackle in Dubrovnik and Hamburg.
Project Important for Croatia’s Aquaculture
When the program will be fully operational, the researcher’s goal is to reach an 80% success rate in litter detection and to collect it with a 90% success rate. As a result, Croatia’s marine life and aquaculture will improve.
“SeaClear will create technical innovations that reduce pollution in coastal waters, thus having a direct and vital impact on both marine and human lives. The project improves living conditions by offering a complete and autonomous solution for removing hazardous material,” Doctor Palunko said.
Humans, flora, and fauna: everyone benefits. For the next four years, Croatia will be at the forefront of underwater waste prevention and collection. Robots and ocean waste: the future has never looked cleaner.