The world’s oceans are facing an escalating crisis driven by plastic pollution. Annually, an astounding 8 million tonnes of plastic waste infiltrate the world’s oceans, inundating coastlines, devastating fisheries, and inflicting harm upon marine ecosystems. A staggering estimate indicates the presence of approximately 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris within our oceans, of which 269,000 tonnes are afloat, while an additional 4 billion microfibers per square kilometre reside beneath the ocean’s surface.
Failure to expeditiously address this dire plastic pollution crisis could lead to catastrophic consequences. These repercussions encompass the suffocation of marine wildlife, a reduction in oceanic oxygen levels resulting in the demise of marine species, and severe health impacts on human populations. Consequently, numerous governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and environmentally conscious individuals are collaborating to combat plastic pollution in the oceans through various strategies, including integrating artificial intelligence in maritime cleanup efforts.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the most promising approaches to mitigating marine plastic pollution. AI in maritime can play a pivotal role in cleansing our oceans and bolstering environmental sustainability by optimising fleet management, reducing fuel consumption, and predicting optimal routes and estimated times of arrival (ETAs) for ships. These advancements can substantially minimise global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
In fact, several projects have already harnessed AI as a potent tool in the battle against ocean plastic pollution. Among these, “The Ocean Cleanup Project” is a standout, lauded as one of the most extensive ocean cleanup initiatives in history. The project is dedicated to expanding and refining technologies designed to eradicate plastics and debris from the world’s oceans, with an ambitious objective to eliminate 90% of floating ocean debris by 2040.
At present, the non-profit organisation is using a combination of remote-sensing tools and AI to detect and collect plastic waste from the oceans. With AI, they can rapidly and efficiently determine areas with a high concentration of plastic waste materials. This enables them to deploy resources to those areas and make the most substantial impact.
To better understand why AI is a promising solution to the ocean plastic pollution crisis, this article enumerates in detail the different ways in which the use of artificial intelligence in the maritime industry can help clear the world’s oceans of plastic waste.
Easier Tracking and Identification of Plastic Pollution
One of the biggest challenges in eliminating plastic pollution from the oceans is simply detecting where it is. AI can help make this task easier by utilising machine learning and satellite imagery to detect plastic debris in the ocean. The information obtained here can then be used to formulate targeted cleanup efforts. For instance, The Ocean Cleanup Project uses AI to track and identify plastic debris in the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a collection of marine waste materials in the North Pacific Ocean.
The research team at the non-profit organisation used AI-powered tools and other new technologies to make it easier for them to determine optimal locations where cleanup operations can be conducted. They use a fleet of independent boats to gather data on the site as well as the size of the plastic debris. Such data is then utilised to create and deploy cleanup systems that can eliminate plastic from the ocean.
The proliferation of microplastics (MPs) poses a significant hurdle in the quest to purify our oceans. These minuscule particles are the result of plastic materials breaking down into tiny fragments, aptly named “microplastics.” What exacerbates this challenge is the inherent difficulty in detecting and removing these microplastics from the water. A critical concern arises from the fact that marine creatures, such as fish, can perceive these diminutive plastic fragments and often mistake them for sustenance. Consequently, there exists a tangible risk of microplastics finding their way into the human diet when consuming fish.
In the face of this environmental conundrum, researchers are harnessing the potential of machine learning techniques to forge groundbreaking methods for microplastic detection. Among these novel approaches, a cutting-edge methodology relies on the fusion of advanced machine learning algorithms and high-resolution microscopy. Furthermore, AI is undergoing rigorous training and refinement to attain the capability to discern plastic particles at the cellular level. These innovative technologies offer a promising avenue to simplify the task of distinguishing microplastics from non-plastic entities.
Development of More Advanced Cleanup Technologies
AI continues to revolutionise environmental conservation by catalysing the development of cutting-edge cleanup technologies. For instance, researchers at the University of California have engineered an aquatic robot capable of navigating the depths of the ocean to collect plastic debris. This robotic marvel is equipped with a camera and a precision suction system, designed to execute the critical task of retrieving litter from the water and depositing it into specially designated “trash cans” strategically positioned on the ocean floor. Once the cleanup mission is accomplished, these submerged receptacles are hoisted to the surface, laden with plastics.
Distinguished by their exceptional capabilities, some underwater autonomous robots have the capacity to explore the ocean’s depths, reaching unfathomed recesses where plastic waste may linger. These mechanical sentinels play a pivotal role in scouring the ocean for pieces of plastic and discarded refuse, whether they drift beneath the waves or rest on the seafloor. This transformative approach, aimed at tackling ocean litter on the seabed, significantly streamlines the tireless efforts of volunteers and dedicated researchers engaged in the imperative tasks of debris removal and pollution monitoring.
Aside from robots, another promising technology that is being developed with the help of AI is autonomous drones. These drones can help people combat plastic pollution by taking photos of examined areas, which are then analysed by machine learning algorithms to identify possible locations of plastic waste and highlight these spots on the map. In addition, machine learning algorithms can be trained to identify plastic rubbish like plastic bags, differentiating them from sea inhabitants like jellyfish.
Increased Public Education
AI can likewise be utilised to educate the public about the worsening problem of plastic pollution. Governments and organisations can deploy AI-driven chatbots as informative allies, capable of addressing inquiries regarding plastic pollution and dispensing valuable tips on how individuals can play their part in curbing plastic waste in our oceans.
Furthermore, the educational potential of AI knows no bounds. With AI’s assistance, the creation of engaging and instructive media, encompassing interactive games and enlightening videos, offers a dynamic platform for instilling knowledge, particularly among the younger generation. By imparting the significance of safeguarding the world’s oceans to children, we pave the way for a future generation that champions environmental preservation.
There is no doubt that artificial intelligence in shipping and maritime operations is a powerful tool that governments, organisations, and individuals alike can take advantage of to address the worsening issue of plastic pollution. By tracking and detecting plastic waste, identifying microplastics, developing breakthrough cleanup technologies, and educating the public, AI can indeed provide enormous assistance in cleaning up the world’s oceans and ultimately protecting marine life.
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