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Great Outdoors

Drone-Powered Cleanup Aims To Keep Great Lakes Plastic Free

Adam Bouse

The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater lake system in the world. They help supply water to the U.S. and Canada and serve as the water gateways between the countries. Unfortunately, the Great Lakes face similar issues with trash, much like the ocean and other large bodies of water.  Thankfully, new developments in drone technology and donations from influential companies are cleaning up the shorelines and open water between our northern neighbor and country. 

The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) studied the concentration of plastic in the Great Lakes to aid in waterfront cleanup and marine life conservation. The study found that 22 million pounds of debris float into the Great Lakes every year, threatening the health of 137 fish species, some of which humans eat regularly. On top of that, microplastics have been found in 29 tributaries that feed from the lakes. 

“This study is the first picture of the true scale of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes,” explained Matthew Hoffman, assistant professor of mathematics at RIT. Once fish ingest microplastic, the creatures that eat them consume it and harmful petroleum-based chemicals. An innovative solution is necessary to reduce the plastic levels on the beaches and watershed systems.

Photo Courtesy NASA

So, two remote-controlled drones, BeBot and PixieDrone, were brought in to do just that. The BeBot has been likened to a Roomba. Instead of a vacuum, it’s equipped with a vibrating sifter that extracts plastics from the beaches. Using solar energy and batteries for power, the BeBot can cover up to two-thirds of an acre for up to three hours. It digs a 4-inch deep hole, sifts the sand, and workers manually empty bins for recycling and sorting once it has reached 25 gallons of trash

PixieDrone is essentially the same device for water-logged trash. Using a series of lights and cameras to find waste, it can filter up to 42 gallons of garbage from the water and last up to six hours before charging. Thanks to the tech developer Searial Cleaners, the cleanup process is getting expedited. 

VIDEO: Meijer BeBot and PixieDrone cleanup demonstrations

A handful of other trash collection technologies are also aiding the effort. A nonprofit called the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup (GLPC) had the bright idea to contract the BeBot and PixieDrone but recognized that they could only do so much when not charged. 

GLPC found a handful of trash-collecting devices, particularly on docks and marinas, where waste builds up in bunches.

There is the Seabin, a floating garbage bin that sucks in plastic to keep it out of open water. Another is the LittaTrap by Enviropod, a basin that sits in storm drains to catch debris and trash from entering larger water systems. With them, GLPC can boast it has removed over 74,000 plastic pieces from the Great Lakes, and the foundation only began work in 2020.

Photo Courtesy Searial Cleaners

Much of this work couldn’t be done without substantial financial assistance, and a bi-national effort through companies and other advocacy groups backed the Great Lakes cleanup. Here in the U.S., Meijer Supermarkets donated $1 million to the Council of the Great Lakes Region, another Great Lakes conservation group helping with the project. 

“A lot of people don’t know that there is a plastic challenge or problem in the Great Lakes. And so this is an important tool for raising awareness,” said Mark Fisher, CEO and president of the council. Meijer uses upcycled plastics collected from the lakes for furniture and even got to be the sponsor for one of the BeBots used in the operation. 

Circulating products is also part of the council’s three-part strategy to develop a sustainable, circular economy from the cleanup. It presented a plan to create manufacturing, cleaning, and maintenance jobs alongside the eight states and two Canadian provinces. With businesses like Dow, Meijer, American Packaging, and Dart backing the proposal, the council could drastically reduce the amount of trash in the watersheds and improve the livelihoods of American and Canadian citizens.