Remote-controlled robots coming to Lake Erie will help remove, study plastic pollution

Lake Erie will soon have two electric, remote-controlled robots on its shores and in its waters to help remove plastic pollution.

The technology is part of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup initiative, led by the Council of the Great Lakes Region and Pollution Probe. The Canadian-based organizations joined forces in 2020 to help remove plastic from the Great Lakes.

Researchers with the Rochester Institute of Technology found that nearly 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes each year through different sources and waterways.

“That number is quite concerning,” said Mark Fisher, founder and CEO of the council.

After seeing plastic-removing technology being used in saltwater environments, the team wanted to try it out on the Great Lakes.

“We’ve seen them deployed around the world, in other coastal communities and predominantly, I would say, in saltwater environments,” Fisher said. “We said, well, there’s no reason why they can’t be … tested and deployed in an environment like the Great Lakes.”

Over the last two years, the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup Initiative expanded to more than 30 sites with different types of cleanup technology. After receiving funding from Meijer and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the initiative expanded to the United States.

“We’ve seen some incredible expansion over the last couple of years in the ability to use new capture and cleanup technologies as part of our work, he said.”

The initiative was able to introduce this technology to Northeast Ohio’s waterways through partnerships with Cleveland Metroparks, Lake Metroparks, the Port of Cleveland and the PHASTAR Corporation.

Meijer’s $1 million donation funded both robots, the BeBot and the PixieDrone.

The BeBot, developed by Niteko Robotics, combs the beaches with a rake that gathers large particles from the sand into a collection bin on the robot. It can climb over obstacles, and carry up to 40 kilograms, or about 88 pounds of material.

The PixieDrone, designed by Ranmarine, navigates the lake and pulls floating debris from the water to collect it into the back of the machine. It is equipped with a camera to help it avoid obstacles, and a basket that can hold up to about 42 gallons and 132 pounds.

“So, both of them are remote controlled devices and operate slightly differently, but provide very useful and helpful data for the work that we do,” Fisher said.

The robots are able to collect larger plastics, like bottles, food containers and cigarette butts, and plastics as small as nurdles – plastic pellets that can range from one to five millimeters in size, Fisher said.

After the collection, researchers will sort through the debris to determine and categorize what is collected, Fisher said. This involves recycling material, throwing away waste and returning any organic material, like sticks and plants, back to the beach.

There is not yet a definitive number on the amount of plastic in Lake Erie itself, Fisher said, but the data collected will allow them to determine that information.

“In terms of absolute numbers, there really isn’t one at this stage,” he said, “which is why, the work that we’re doing through the Great Lakes plastics cleanup and on individual beaches and marinas is really helping us understand what is showing up in different lakes, but also different communities that are bordering Lake Erie and the other [four] Great Lakes.”

The BeBot and PixieDrone will be deployed in Lake Erie this fall for the testing phase, led by Ohio State University’s Ohio Sea Grant program, Fisher said. They will be officially deployed around April or May of 2023 and will run until the fall.

While the robots will help provide a path to making the shores and waters of Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes clean, Fisher said they are not the solution.

“The solution is working further upstream in the economy and our communities to make sure that we’re doing a much better job at providing opportunities to collect, recover this material, obviously recycle it and create opportunities for its reuse in the economy,” Fisher said, “as opposed to it either going to landfill or even worse, showing up in the environment as litter.”

The Council of the Great Lakes hopes the robots will spark a larger conversation that can create a lasting impact on plastic disposal and reduction, Fisher said.

“It really helps us reach coastal communities, whether it’s both beachgoers or boaters, about this plastics challenge that we face in the Great Lakes region,” he said, “and how we need to be working together to make sure that plastic never becomes waste or litter in the first place.”

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