A robot skimmer concept to recover marine litter:
Civilization managed to empty the oceans with highly effective tools and gave back what has been of no value anymore in solid and liquid – trash. Mankind simply overestimated or ignored the volume of the planet, hoped it would be infinite. It is not. Today litter and food swim next to each other.
To avoid this dumping, society is putting already large and growing efforts to prevent littering by reduce, reuse and recycle what everyone consumes.
But how about the portion we can’t avoid today and in the future in a global, complex and growing society? Can there be an efficient solution to filter waste out of the water again without spending more resources and making more damage than the litter already does? Or is it a freaky idea of a developed western country engineer bringing hope first but more damage at the end to the planet we all depend on?
Project „Floating Horizon“ is a concept about harvesting marine litter efficiently in the future. It used the few but growing available numbers about marine litter. I selected the small or critical numbers as this makes it harder to succeed (Take a look at the cost estimation). I used the economical iterations to find a cost, energy and material efficient solution concept to tackle the issue of drifting ocean litter.
The Concept idea:
The mechanics: The resulting concept is the idea of creating clusters of robotic trawler-nets with a skimming depth of just 1 meter aiming for the larger parts and a wingspan of 7 meters. They move and act without the need of additional energy. They use a modified version of the wave propulsion principle developed by Liquid Robotics for its slow movement. To withstand the brutal forces of the water the skimmer does not fight the forces, it gives in. Inspired by modern kite boarding and jelly fishes, the Skimmer uses low amount of material, mainly textiles. It is very flexible and even submerges if the water gets too rough to avoid a collapse or roll over.
Harvesting and service tactics: As litter is only at the surface at more calm seas also the skimmer are on duty during that time and can be serviced while that period. They move quiet slow to allow self-propelling life forms to escape and to avoid turbulence while approaching drifting litter. In addition data about plankton blooms, day and night movement etc. build a core foundation to develop a weather forecast like map and to avoid areas of large sea life population while. Like your grass mower each skimmer bunker needs to be exchanged every three weeks. This can be done very easily and links into existing fishing infrastructure, like Waste Free Ocean is promoting. It avoids large and/or new infrastructure and is designed to be developed and available for use by service providers around the world in the next 5-10 years.
There should be no doubt about that such an idea has major challenges and various not answered questions. And to pretend that this concept is “A / THE / Great Solution” would be not responsible as dealing with the hope of humans and risking animals and a lot of money and time we can spend much more effectively on doing better.
The hardest part in my eyes is to avoid danger to sea-life and while the features mentioned above are easy to estimate and to imagine I would never say that I found the solution to match protection of sea life and filtering particles out of the ocean with little service. To answer the open questions more future research is needed. And as all the skimming concepts out there have created big discussions please also read Stiv Wilson’s (5Gyres) comment on all the concept ideas which I highly respect for his honest words.
Having said that what is now my personal sum up? First the iterations have shown that such a venture can be cheaper than expected in terms of resources and costs by perhaps factor five. But to be frank it will cost millions per year to achieve a significant impact. And the harvested material even if used right away for energy on the boat is not a profit case. There is enough litter to make a damage to nature but not enough to run e.g. a rapid prototyping factory between China and the US in a scale which could outnumber the costs. Harvesting this highly dispersed litter out of remote, harsh and endangered environments will be expensive and risky. To me the value for doing it is a different one. If one can answer the question how to filter in an environmental friendly manner without killing, it can be a feasible and worthwhile venture to lower the pressure onto our environment.
In that consequence it could be an add-on for hot spot areas. Still the more important actions have to happen on land and ships to prevent that litter does not reach the open water and oceans.
What is the status:
After my degree in 2010, this project stayed my private project, I shifted this project to Ocean Awe which is an open, volunteer based technology research community to develop it further step by step. I am happy if you like to support, raise ideas or have critique. In addition there is a dedicated Floating Horizon Website. If you like, take a look at it.
In addition and to focus more of my to time on Marine Litter and the prevention part of it I joined PlasticsEurope in March 2013. There I lead the Marine Litter Solutions initiative in Europe. Both actions are run separately.
Please have a look at the presentation below and free to contact me for any questions.
Background to my design thesis: This project was the result of my design degree at the KISD (Köln International School of Design) which I did 2010 as my second degree. It dealt with the question how mass consumption will look like in the year 2030 while achieving the targets of a Low Carbon Society. I got inspired by various topics like Factor Five reduction, Circular Economy and Cradle to Cradle. Finally and even if I think that augmentation will due to dematerialization will have a huge impact on the reduction of consumer goods and or their complexity, I shifted my focus to Marine Litter as this is to me one of the key measuring tags to rate if we have managed to find ways of a sustainable consumption.