SEASON 1 / EPISODE 3 Pop Culture Tech Podcast

Will This Robot Save Our Oceans?

Dangerous pollution levels in our oceans and waterways are reaching a point of no return worldwide. Could robots come to the rescue?


In This Episode:

  • The plastics problem
  • River refuse, revitalization and a robot
  • Designing FRED to save the seas
  • Sustainable technology
  • The global impact of tech for good

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Featuring (In Order of Appearance)

Robots to the Rescue?

The numbers are staggering. People have produced about eight billion tons of plastic since 1950. Quickly, they’ve drifted into the world’s waterways — creeks and streams, rivers and oceans. Today, 165 million tons of plastic are estimated to be in the ocean.

By 2050, plastics in the ocean are expected to outweigh fish. That reality has eco-scientists focused on innovative intervention to keep global bodies of water and the food supply healthy.

Their secret weapon? Robots.

Going Against the Flow

“The rivers are a public trust, so they’re kind of everyone’s responsibility at the same time,” says Nick Wesley, director of Urban Rivers, a non-profit rethinking the way people use rivers in cities.

Based in Chicago, the organization built a floating garden to help clean the Chicago River. However, once they established the habitat, regularly cleaning the garden of trash was a challenge. A conversation about nurdles, or tiny pieces of plastic, and a robotic turtle to remove them led to the development of a prototype floating robot to remove trash from the river.

Soon, the organization’s crowd-sourced Trashbot is hoping to make cleaning the river from anywhere a fun, interactive experience for everyone.

Calling in FRED

Clear Blue Sea is also on a mission to take plastics out of the water. But its eye is on the ocean, more specifically on the garbage collected in the Pacific Gyres — about the size of Texas.

“Plastic never biodegrades, dissolves or anything,” says Susan Baer, executive director and founder of the nonprofit. “All it can do in that harsh climate is break into smaller and smaller pieces.”

She explains that creatures in the ocean ingest small pieces of plastic. Then bigger fish eat those fish, and the cycle continues. When we consume ocean catch for dinner (and from other sources, as well), “we likely have microplastics in our human systems.”

Clear Blue Sea believes robots can help reduce ocean waste. Its innovation, FRED (short for Floating Robot For Eliminating Debris) is sustainable, marine mammal friendly and more reliable out than previous efforts. FRED “was invented as an intersection of technologies that already exist,” says Clear Blue Sea project engineer Jessica Gottdank.

Her team is innovating with solar panels, renewable energies, data communications and other technologies, …putting them together to address the problem of floating plastics.”

The Power of Tech for Good

These grassroots agencies are both sounding the alarm and introducing technological solutions into the battle for a sustainable future. Yet more can be done.

“It’s extraordinarily important to find other groups and other individuals and agencies that want to contribute to the betterment of our rivers,” says Wesley. “Their work can make a real difference in our ecosystem.”

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