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AI Revolutionizes Ocean Cleanup Efforts: Pioneering Project Shows Promising Results


Image created by Midjourney AI - Stuart Patterson


A ground-breaking project supported by Google is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to help protect our oceans from plastic pollution.


The Ocean Cleanup Project is using AI to develop innovative technologies to clean up the world's oceans more effectively. This promising project has the potential to make a significant impact on the fight against plastic pollution.

The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organisation founded by Boyan Slat in 2013, aims to develop technologies to remove plastic pollution from the oceans. A key objective of their research team is to use data-driven insights to determine the most effective locations for clean-up operations. By utilising AI, the organisation is making considerable progress in tracking plastic pollution, creating detailed maps of plastic densities in remote ocean locations, and developing robots to collect plastic pollution.

Image courtesy plasticoceans


Experts in the field of marine conservation and AI technology have expressed optimism about the potential of AI-driven solutions for ocean cleanup. Renowned marine biologist and oceanographer, Dr. Sylvia Earle, stated in a 2018 interview with The Guardian: "There's no doubt that technology is playing an increasingly important role in addressing the challenges facing our oceans. AI, in particular, holds great promise for improving our understanding of ocean systems and guiding our efforts to protect them."

To tackle the plastic pollution crisis, Ocean Cleanup is leveraging AI by identifying, analysing and tracking plastic pollution. In a 2019 TEDx talk, Dr. James Hansen, a leading expert in remote sensing and satellite imagery, discussed the significance of using AI for tracking plastic pollution: "Combining satellite imagery with machine learning algorithms can provide invaluable data on the distribution and movement of plastic pollution, enabling organisations like Ocean Cleanup to target their efforts more effectively."

The team has spent over two years working on AI object detection software, which has now been combined with GPS-tagged time-lapse photos to track the movement of plastic pollution in the ocean. This helps the organisation find the best places to clean up plastic and direct their cleaning efforts where they are needed most.




In a recent trial, the research team used GoPro cameras on ships to scan hundreds of miles of ocean for plastic debris. After processing the dataset with their new AI object detection algorithm, they identified more than four hundred large plastic items in the GPS-tagged images. This data allowed them to create a numerical concentration map, which revealed areas with higher concentrations of plastic pollution.

Courtesy The Ocean Cleanup


The Ocean Cleanup's innovative approach to using AI could transform the way we clean up the oceans, making it more efficient and effective than ever before. Boyan Slat, the founder of the Ocean Cleanup, is optimistic about the future of AI in ocean cleanup efforts. He said, "We believe that AI has the potential to revolutionise the way we clean up the oceans. By using AI, we can develop innovative technologies that are more efficient and effective than anything that has come before. We are excited to see what the future holds for AI and ocean cleanup."
AI helps Ocean Cleanup find and track plastic pollution by using something called an artificial neural network, which is anabundance of maths equations that learn to recognize objects in images. To teach the AI, they used lots of example images from their past missions, and volunteers helped label the objects in the images by drawing boxes around them. Then, they used a technique called data augmentation to transform the images, creating even more examples for the AI to learn from. With all these images, the AI gets better at finding and recognizing plastic pollution in the ocean.




The United Nations Development Programme have also entered a Memorandum of Understanding with The Ocean Cleanup. “Eliminating plastic pollution in all its forms is key to protecting human and planetary health and safeguarding sustainable development,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google said, “We believe that by harnessing the power of AI, we can make meaningful progress on complex global challenges like climate change and help create a more sustainable future for us all."

As a result of their research, the Ocean Cleanup Project is now working on collecting more data from various places in the ocean. They plan to use their AI method to create even more detailed maps of plastic pollution in remote areas, helping to protect the oceans and the wildlife that lives there. This promising project is a testament to the power of technology in addressing critical environmental challenges. The Ocean Cleanup Project said that “200,000 kg of plastic extracted from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Boyan Slat - Courtesy Ocean Cleanup


Slat, in an earlier interview with the BBC said, “"I truly believe that with these technologies to clean up the legacy pollution in the ocean and to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans, we will actually able to put ourselves out of business in the not-so-distant future.”
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