Robot boat uses AI to prevent rubbish floating into the ocean

Robot boat uses AI to prevent rubbish floating into the ocean
John Curran

Clearbot on the water in Hong Kong

Clearbot Neo also collects environmental data, which is then hosted on Microsoft’s Azure platform

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Open Ocean Engineering has developed Clearbot Neo, a robot boat which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and the Microsoft Azure platform to collect floating rubbish from washing into the Pacific Ocean from Hong Kong’s harbours.

The Clearbot Neo moves up and down designated sections of harbours, canals and rivers, picking up floating rubbish and moving it onto an onboard conveyer belt fitted near its bow.

Clearbot Neo also uses AI and two-camera detection systems to identify and track the rubbish while avoiding marine life, navigational hazards and other vessels.

One of the cameras photographs each piece of rubbish that lands on the conveyor belt and transmits the image and GPS location to the company’s data compliance system, which is hosted on Microsoft Azure. This data allows environmentalists and marine authorities to identify the sources of the litter. Water quality data is also fed into the cloud.

Computer engineers Gupta and Utkarsh Goel began working on the Clearbot solution after graduating from Hong Kong University in 2019 and being inspired by witnessing local workers in Bali, Indonesia, manually collect rubbish from the sea daily.

“We simply didn’t have the computing power available to train, run and test the models,” said Gupta. “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.”

The data, which is collected using AI, is more valuable than the physical material that is being collected since only 20 to 40 per cent of marine plastic waste in Hong Kong’s water can be recycled.

According to Gupta, Clearbot’s ability to track the source of rubbish is valuable. “It adds a lot of transparency to the process of marine clean-up,” he said. “We generate data about what’s actually in the water, what’s the make-up of the stuff that’s there, how much of it is recyclable and what materials we should be focusing on.”

Sino Group, for example, will work with the Clearbot team to test the technology’s ability to keep a yacht marina in Hong Kong clean.

“We find the electric-powered Clearbot is a viable solution for the marina at Gold Coast Yacht and Country Club to automate waste collection from the water’s surface with its AI and self-navigate function,” said Andrew Young, associate director of the innovation department at Sino Group. “It is a green solution with no noise or air pollution. So, we are pleased to collaborate with Clearbot by providing the marina as a testbed for the solution.”

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