Link Copied

Microsoft teamed up with a nonprofit using autonomous 'interceptor' boats to clean up the ocean and is helping it identify trash with machine learning

Microsoft teamed up with a nonprofit using autonomous 'interceptor' boats to clean up the ocean and is helping it identify trash with machine learning
  • The Ocean Cleanup is a nonprofit that designs technology to clean up plastic from the ocean.
  • Microsoft hosted two hackathons to build a machine learning model to help identify waste.
  • The nonprofit is turning plastic ocean waste into new products.
Advertisement

Cleaning up the oceans is a huge undertaking, especially for a single nonprofit based out of the Netherlands, but having Microsoft on your side is a nice bonus.

Boyan Slat launched The Ocean Cleanup nonprofit in 2013, with the goal of cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since then, the project has also embraced the goal of preventing new waste from entering the ocean by cleaning up rivers the carry many of the pollutants.

In 2018, The Ocean Cleanup was a participant in Microsoft's annual hackathon, where volunteers work together on moonshots to try to come up with innovative solutions. The resulting machine learning models have helped The Ocean Cleanup track plastic and other waste, and informed how and where the nonprofit deploys its giant autonomous plastic collectors.

Take a look at how it works.

The Ocean Cleanup is a nonprofit taking on plastic pollution on two fronts: plastic already in the ocean, and plastic moving into the ocean through rivers.

The Ocean Cleanup is a nonprofit taking on plastic pollution on two fronts: plastic already in the ocean, and plastic moving into the ocean through rivers.
Garbage floating in the ocean. The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Plastic in oceans tend to form large systems like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and break down into microplastics, which can be harmful to marine life and eventually people.

Plastic in oceans tend to form large systems like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and break down into microplastics, which can be harmful to marine life and eventually people.
Ocean cleanup expedition. The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

According to The Ocean Cleanup, going after this waste with ships and nets would be expensive, time consuming, and require massive amounts of fossil fuels.

According to The Ocean Cleanup, going after this waste with ships and nets would be expensive, time consuming, and require massive amounts of fossil fuels.
Ocean cleanup expedition. The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement
Advertisement

Instead, the project is working with what it calls a passive system for cleanup.

Instead, the project is working with what it calls a passive system for cleanup.
Inceptor 001 in Jakarta. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Interceptors like this one are part of the nonprofit's fleet.

Interceptors like this one are part of the nonprofit's fleet.
Inceptor 001 in Jakarta. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

The solar powered vehicle autonomously collects plastic from rivers before it can reach the ocean, moving with river currents.

The solar powered vehicle autonomously collects plastic from rivers before it can reach the ocean, moving with river currents.
Inceptor 001 in Jakarta. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

With some already deployed in Jakarta and Malaysia, The Ocean Cleanup hopes to use interceptors on 1000 of the most polluting rivers around the world within five years.

With some already deployed in Jakarta and Malaysia, The Ocean Cleanup hopes to use interceptors on 1000 of the most polluting rivers around the world within five years.
Interceptor 002 in Malaysia. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Vietnam and the Dominican Republic are the next sites.

Vietnam and the Dominican Republic are the next sites.
Interceptor 002 in Malaysia. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Each interceptor has a capacity of 65 cubic yards of waste and weighs nearly 50 tons.

Each interceptor has a capacity of 65 cubic yards of waste and weighs nearly 50 tons.
The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Despite the massive size, the nonprofit says the interceptor is scalable because it was designed for mass production, can work in most of the world's polluting rivers, and requires only minimal human contact with dangerous pollutants.

Despite the massive size, the nonprofit says the interceptor is scalable because it was designed for mass production, can work in most of the world's polluting rivers, and requires only minimal human contact with dangerous pollutants.
Interceptor 002 in Malaysia. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

The interceptor is a kind of catamaran, where water continues moving with the current while concentrated plastic flows into the interceptor.

The interceptor is a kind of catamaran, where water continues moving with the current while concentrated plastic flows into the interceptor.
The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

The current moves debris onto a permeable conveyer belt, leaving only pollutants behind.

The current moves debris onto a permeable conveyer belt, leaving only pollutants behind.
Interceptor 002 in Malaysia. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Depending on the weather, current, and other factors a single interceptor can collect more than 11,000 pounds of debris in a day.

Depending on the weather, current, and other factors a single interceptor can collect more than 11,000 pounds of debris in a day.
Inceptor 001 in Jakarta. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Once full, the interceptor brings waste to shore to be sorted at a local facility.

Once full, the interceptor brings waste to shore to be sorted at a local facility.
Interceptor 002 in Malaysia. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

This is where Microsoft's help comes in. In 2018, Microsoft employee Drew Wilkinson reached out to The Ocean Cleanup by email about how the tech giant might help the nonprofit at its annual hackathon.

This is where Microsoft's help comes in. In 2018, Microsoft employee Drew Wilkinson reached out to The Ocean Cleanup by email about how the tech giant might help the nonprofit at its annual hackathon.
Plastic accumulation. The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

"Microsoft has immense computational resources that could really help you track and monitor your efforts at a fraction of the cost using AI," he wrote in his outreach email.

"Microsoft has immense computational resources that could really help you track and monitor your efforts at a fraction of the cost using AI," he wrote in his outreach email.
Plastic accumulation. The Ocean Cleanup

Source: Microsoft

Advertisement

Over two company hackathons, Microsoft employees built a machine learning model to track plastic flowing through rivers with interceptors.

Over two company hackathons, Microsoft employees built a machine learning model to track plastic flowing through rivers with interceptors.
The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Before Microsoft's help, the nonprofit had one person labeling and identifying images of debris by himself, an inefficient and tedious process.

Before Microsoft's help, the nonprofit had one person labeling and identifying images of debris by himself, an inefficient and tedious process.
Interceptor 002 in Malaysia. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

The nonprofit shared images with Microsoft volunteers, who used the machine learning model to identify plastic versus other debris like leaves or branches.

The nonprofit shared images with Microsoft volunteers, who used the machine learning model to identify plastic versus other debris like leaves or branches.
Ocean Cleanup in San Francisco. The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

In one summer, they were able to label more than 30,000 photos.

In one summer, they were able to label more than 30,000 photos.
Plastic sorting. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Now they're working on a similar model for ocean photos, too.

Now they're working on a similar model for ocean photos, too.
Ocean Cleanup in San Francisco. The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Vessels in the ocean have a similar cleanup method and bring back debris to Mission Control in San Francisco for assessment.

Vessels in the ocean have a similar cleanup method and bring back debris to Mission Control in San Francisco for assessment.
Ocean Cleanup in San Francisco. The Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement

Now, The Ocean Cleanup is working to recycle the collected plastic into new products to keep the nonprofit financially sustainable.

Now, The Ocean Cleanup is working to recycle the collected plastic into new products to keep the nonprofit financially sustainable.
Plastic granulates. Ocean Cleanup
Advertisement