Can Robots Clean Polluted Rivers?

May 13 2018 Read 1683 Times

Robotic vacuum cleaners are becoming more and more popular for use in spheres both commercial and domestic… but what about a natural setting? Chicago-based start-up company Urban Rivers have developed a bot which uses similar technology to collect rubbish from a floating garden alongside the Chicago River.

What’s more, the robot’s creators want to involve the general public by turning the trash collection into a game. By allowing passers-by the opportunity to test out driving the robot using a remote control in five- to 20-minute bursts, people can have fun while simultaneously helping to clean up the environment.

A constant problem

Urban Rivers initially instigated the idea of installing a floating garden on the banks of the Chicago River and used a Kickstarter campaign to source funding for the project. But after only a year of the first phase of the garden being put in place, the non-profit organisation soon noticed that the accumulation of litter came more quickly than they could address it.

“After a year of having the gardens in, we realized how bad the trash situation was. We tried to find ways to clean it up with volunteers, but it comes and goes in spurts,” explained Nick Wesley, co-founder of the company. “Some of the people in our group talked about nurdles, tiny pieces of plastic, and how we could clean those up.” One of the ideas broached was a Roomba-type autonomous cleaner.

Harnessing the power of AI

Using sophisticated machines in the battle against plastic pollution is not a new idea, though Urban Rivers’ initiative is innovative in its involvement of the general public. Using a similar Kickstarter as the one which funded the floating garden, the organisation was able to raise $5,000 to build the prototype bot, which is capable of being controlled via remote control. The next incarnation will be able to be controlled by smartphone or tablet, says Wesley.

The robot is around two feet by three feet in size, making it ideal for squeezing into difficult and inaccessible spaces – which is where litter tends to accumulate. Final testing sessions are scheduled for June in a basement pool to work out any final kinks, before the device will be open to prospective users. Although Urban Rivers do not expect to charge for the privilege, they are hoping some philanthropic users may donate a small sum to the company.

Keeping waters clean all over the globe

Wesley is hoping that the initial bot will just be the tip of the iceberg for AI cleaning and game technology. “Beyond just cleaning up trash, I'm excited about ideas of wildlife monitoring, building games into it, allowing people to interact in a system without necessarily being there or being in a simulation,” he said.

Already, the group have been contacted by interested parties in locations as far-flung as London and Sydney, who are keen to employ the technology to clean up waterways in their respective countries. Earlier this year, VINCI Facilities won an innovation award for its water monitoring systems. Perhaps this time next year, Urban Rivers could be celebrating similar accolades and recognition on this side of the pond.

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