How AI Can Help The Beach Plastic Clean-Up

It’s massive, it’s multi-dimensional and it’s just around the corner …


A new science-led project is using  drones to survey plastic waste on our beaches and waterways. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being put to good use helping us clean up our oceans.

The project is led by the British Science Association and charity The Plastic Tide, located at . They hope eventually to help map plastic build-up anywhere on the globe.

I have to say straight off that I don’t like talking to machines. But in many cases I more or less have to. I’m thinking of the call centre answering services we have to deal with almost daily.

“Did you say … ‘yes’ ?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

(That’s because you are a machine, I think to myself.)

Imagine being stuck in a conversation forever with an intelligent program that “didn’t hear you” and keeps looping back to the same question.

But I’d be a brave man to predict they won’t become more and more part of our lives, and get much smarter. Like cars that drive themselves. Before long we won’t even be able to drive in many crowded city centres. Our vehicles will come to get us, take us where we want to go and shoot off to self-park in the suburbs for the computer equivalent of a quiet smoke.

Before long we’ll be sharing a private joke with our cars as we cruise along the bot-only lane to the yoga class. Who knows? Why not? 

Dronet’s camera

Artificial armies? Of course there’s the negative side. A crazy billionaire whose mother never showed him or her enough love might secretly build an army of them, all programmed to laser-print exact copies of themselves. So let’s hope the legislators catch up with it all pretty soon. 

And if robots can do the fighting, why involve humans? Why not just let them fight it out among themselves? That’s scary.

Anyway, here’s how it works. A drone with a camera attached flies around our coast taking photos, which are posted to the website. Set up an account and you can go online and ‘tag’ all the plastic waste you can identify in the photos. Then the drone software learns to tell the difference between plastic and other things you find on beaches, like sand and stones. 

Eventually the drone gets so good at sorting plastic from everything else it can do it alone and presumably then ring us up and tell us to get down to whatever beach and clean it up. Which is pretty amazing, no? 

Actually it’s not really AI but ‘machine learning’, which is part of AI. Confused? Me too, that’s why it’s a lot easier to call the whole lot AI and let the scientists sort it out.

Project adviser Dr. Erik Van Sebille defines the core goals of the project as: 

  • to produce an Open Source Machine Learning Algorithm capable of detecting up to 90% of beach plastics via pioneering use of imaging technology
  • to engage in a large-scale, accessible and educational Citizen-Science Project, and
  • to explore the relationship and impacts of plastics on communities and individuals
Dr. Erik Van Sebille. Source:

So where is AI at? Despite the media hype, machines aren’t quite ready to wake up tomorrow and take over the planet. Mind you, now’s a good time to put laws in place to keep them under control. Despite the sci-fi implications, technology like this is far more likely to help humanity overall than harm it. 

And the environmental crisis is an ideal place we could use AI technology to help solve problems.


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