South Korea uses drones to fight ocean plastics pollution

A pressing problem.

The authority is using drones to monitor and collect information of floating plastics garbage to help fight pollution.  

By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Plastics garbage threatens the lives of sea creatures, messes up the food chain, and can damage our health. For example, humans can end up ingesting harmful microplastics if they eat fish or other marine creatures that consumed plastics. Microplastics exposure can cause metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity, and increased cancer risk in humans.  To fight this problem, South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT of South Korea is funding a project that uses drones to collect information on floating plastics garbage.

According to a paper published in Nature Sustainability, about 91 million metric tons of garbage were dumped into the ocean from 1990 to 2015, and 87 percent of it was plastic. By 2050, the weight of plastic waste in the ocean will exceed that of fishes, with eight to ten million tons of plastic garbage dumped every year.

The research, led by Nikoleta Bellou from Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, found that 73 percent of the 177 methods to tackle ocean waste problems have been developed during the past four years. The methods mostly comprised monitoring and tracking surface ocean garbage.

A more efficient and accurate method

The 1.5 billion won (US$1.28 million) government-funded drone project, which is slated to start later in the year, is awarded to Hancom inSpace, a tech company based in Daejeon, South Korea.  

“Since last year, our company has been studying how to use drones to collect more information on the marine garbage problem,” Choi Myung-jin, CEO of Hancom inSpace, told Maritime Fairtrade. “Our studies have been also published in scholastic journals on the Science Citation Index.” 

The purpose of their drones is to identify where the ocean garbage comes from, categorize the types of waste, such as plastic, and calculate how much there is to clean up in the ocean. Compare to humans, drones can cover a wider area and the results will be more accurate.                  

“In the past, to estimate the total amount of marine garbage, government officials and researchers have to visit the polluted areas and check with their own eyes,” Choi said. “Their estimation has been based on what they see, which could result in inaccurate outcomes sometimes. That is why our company decided to adopt drones in inspecting ocean garbage.”

With government’s funding comes more improvements

The company’s drones can collect visual data within a four-meter radius and can be up in the air for 20 minutes at a time.  Choi said that despite this short radius and flight duration, the data collected is sufficient and accurate.

“Last year, we tested how well our drones can collect data of garbage washed up on three beaches in the country,” Choi said. “With cameras attached to the drones, we could successfully identify the type, for example, whether they are plastic or not, their sources, and to make improved estimations on the total amount of garbage.”

Still, there are rooms for improvement now that there is government’s funding.  Choi plans to improve image quality and increase flight distance.

“Drones may experience some turbulence when there is strong wind,” he said. “We want to come up with solutions to be able to stabilize against such turbulence and capture high quality images and also perhaps replace the communicator service we use to expand the data transmission range.”

Rise of multipurpose drones

Earlier this month, Busan, the second-largest city in South Korea, announced the investment of 1.9 billion won (US$1.6 million) to use drones to collect information for a marine garbage database.

The authority in Busan aims to collect 400,000 photos of each type of waste; estimate the total amount; and find ways to reduce them. They plan to fly drones two times per month on four different beaches in the coastal city.

“Drones can be more useful than just taking photos and videos for entertainment,” Choi said. “Their features and specifications now are so much better than when they were first launched in the market.  Drones can now be used in a wide range of industries, of course, including the shipping and maritime industries.

“Imagine the amount of data that they can collect once the usage of drones become more popular. From protecting the environment to controlling wildfires, collected data can be very useful in helping humanity.”

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Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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