South Korean start-up introduces robots to clean ocean oil spills

A greener way to clean oil spills.

Sheco, a South Korean start-up based in Incheon, recently introduced a series of robots, which can filter oil, for cleaning up oil spills in the ocean. 

Hundreds of tons of oil are leaked into the ocean every year. Last year alone, over 700 metric tons of oil were spilled from tanker incidents globally. In Korea, there are about 280 cases reported annually.

Oil spill damages the marine ecosystem and also negatively affects human health. Consumers end up eating contaminated seafood, and cleanup crew and nearby community are exposed to oil spills for days.

Since the amendment of Article 26 of Korea’s Marine Environment Management Act in 2008, which requires every ship to have a hull structure built inside their vessel, the number of large-scale oil spill incidents has decreased. Still, small-scale spills, which require human cleaners’ work, happen every year. 

One of the Sheco Ark series products. Photos courtesy of Sheco.

Environmentally-friendly robots

Sheco Ark, the cleanup robot series, consists of 14 models, including one that will be officially launched this June. The robots have a contraption that spins, sucks oil spills, filters oil from the water, and releases the water while retaining the oil for disposal later.

“Sheco Ark is different from other oil extractor products previously introduced to the market,” Gisung Kwon, CEO and co-founder of Sheco, said in an interview with Maritime Fairtrade. “Many used sorbents in cleaning up oil on the ocean surface, then burnt the sorbents inland. This caused unnecessary carbon emissions in the process and impacted our health.”

Gisung Kwon, CEO and co-founder of Sheco. Photo courtesy of Sheco.

While some cleanup devices are heavy, weighing from 200 to 600 kilograms, Sheco’s box-shaped robots, which weigh less than 60 kilograms with size about one-fourth of other devices, can also be remotely controlled or autonomously operated, depending on which model it is. 

“Sheco Ark has the power source, filter and extractor all in one machine,” Kwon said. “This is a type of robot that the industry has not seen yet.  Previously, the devices did not have all functions together.”

Kwon sais it was not easy to come up with the final version of Sheco Ark without the help of people who have expertise in the maritime sector. Kwon first started his company in 2017 and spent two years solely doing market research. 

“The maritime sector in South Korea is quite conservative, as you might already know,” Kwon said. “As a college student then, I didn’t know whom to contact. I often got kicked out of shipping companies when I visited them to get some assistance. From making the product itself to having it certified, nothing was easy. But we survived those challenges.”

One of the Sheco Ark series products. Photo courtesy of Sheco. All rights reserved.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy recently partnered with Sheco and used the company’s robots to improve oil spill management techniques. Kwon said Sheco’s robot series will become the “standard guide” to disaster response.

This year, Sheco will commercialize the Sheco Ark series and market to clients such as Korea Coast Guard, Korea Environment Corporation, and relevant overseas companies, including those in Indonesia and Singapore.

Kwon said his dream is for Sheco to give future generations a chance at a clean marine environment.

“When I was young, I swam at a beach 30 minutes away from my home. Now, people cannot go swimming there as the water is polluted. I’d like to pass on the environment that we have enjoyed as youngsters, with our automatic devices to clean the ocean,” Kwon said.

Photo credit: iStock/predrag1

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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