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Drones for good: UAV fleet help combat plastic pollution plaguing world’s oceans

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Ten years ago British scientist Peter Kohler was in the middle of the South Pacific ocean in what he described to Digital Trends as “pure paradise” when he caught a glimpse of just how much plastic was scattered in the water.

“[Litter] was everywhere, although we were miles from anyone,” he said.

It was this experience that set him on the journey to years later found a charity to help clean up the oceans called Plastic Tide. In their own words, Plastic Tide harness cutting edge drone and algorithm technology to create an open source map of the plastic pollution problem, in the UK and beyond. Put simply – the drones are creating an accurate picture of the terrible impact plastic is having on our environment.

“One of the biggest challenges we face it that of the millions and millions of tones of plastic that wash into our oceans every year,  we can only account for just one percent of where that ends up. The 99 percent; we just don’t know,” Kohler said.

Plastic Tide founder Peter Kohler in the midst of a beach cleanup.

The Scale of the problem

For many of us, plastic pollution is a strong example of one of those problems that is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ This problem, however, is an extremely serious one that is having a devastating impact on our marine life and beaches. It is estimated that between 5-13 million tones of plastic go into the world’s oceans every year.  While floating in the ocean, plastic emits a chemical signature similar to that of plankton and other food sources, making it an attractive target for birds and fish. Birds and fish swallow bits of plastic which, in turn, often fills up their bellies leading to either their stomachs exploding or them to starving to death. As National Geographic has pointed out, the plastic toxins from microplastics also eventually makes their way up the food chain to humans. The harsh reality of plastic pollution is that it is entirely caused by careless human activity.

The grim toll of an ocean clogged with plastic: an albatross chick killed from swallowing pieces of plastic.

Plastic Tide’s drones survey beaches and bodies of water to quantify the scale of the problem. Software onboard the drones use algorithms to identify where the plastic is located. For each and every beach the team visits, they take hundreds of pictures which gives them a wealth of data they can learn from and make their algorithms more accurate at identifying plastic in images.

At the beginning of April last year the team set out on a 3200 mile journey around the UK in an attempt to gather up to 30,000 images from beaches around the country.

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