Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Clean Up Time

Humans, as a whole, have not exactly left a subtle footprint on the planet. The mass of waste that we have produced in our short stint as the planet's dominant species is nothing short of staggering. Through this endeavor we have kind of painted our selves into a corner. The amount of trash in our immediate area is starting to show that it is not benign, and that it will not tolerate much further ignorance. The first, and main, issue is concerned with the sorry state of the oceans. The second, and slightly less threatening but equally important, issue is the large amount of man made junk orbiting the earth. It has come to the point where ignoring both of these large floating mounds of waste is causing all kinds of problems for people, or at least enough problems to stimulate the search for an efficient solution. Not surprisingly, such similar problems have yielded similar solutions.

The more immediate threat, the trash in the oceans, has been one of our largest food sources as a species for an inestimable amount of time. However, we have not respected it as such, dumping trash by the ton and over-fishing many whole ecosystems to extinction. Over-fishing is a big enough issue that it might need a couple of different solutions, so we are going to steer clear of it for now. After years of missteps, the first movement towards what may be an elegant solution is revealing itself, and it comes from a field of technology known for some far more sinister leanings. The ethical argument over the use of unmanned drones in war has been something of a hot button issue in the news lately. Thankfully the advanced technology has shown useful in a project that is way easier to get behind. The basic idea is to clean the oceans with a machine that functions as an unmanned drone, or more accurately a whole fleet of them. Designed by Elie Ahovi, the machine is basically an over-sized net, which is propelled by motors attached to a ring like “mouth” at the front. Also contained are sensors which will track and try to catch plastic and other trash, while avoiding wildlife becoming ensnared. One unit has enough power to stay deployed for up to two weeks. While this is still a new invention and there are likely some bugs, it shows the potential to do a lot of good in a large scale operation.

While less threatening, the trash floating around the earth in orbit has been causing countless problems for the various interests trying to put their own equipment in that space. The small pieces of shrapnel accumulated from our decades in space can move at huge speeds and break pieces of expensive equipment put up their by governments and businesses. With people starting to complain, the Swiss have taken it upon themselves to try to fix this. While it will probably be less independent than the ocean drones, the “janitor” satellite project currently referred to as clean space one will likely work in basically the same way. The unmanned satellite will collect debris as it orbits the earth in order make installing future satellites more financially viable and prevent debris from falling back to earth.
To be frank, both of these are lazy solutions. But, sometimes that is exactly what you need when a problem seems insurmountable. Also the word lazy does not speak to the extreme creativity and ingenuity of these solutions. One man's lazy is the next's efficient.

Posted By Hunter Alexander (1)


  1. With regards to using drones to clean the oceans, do you have any information on the cost effectiveness of doing this? It seems like an interesting and hi-tech solution to a serious problem, but I'm weary of whether anyone will actually invest the money to do it if it is as expensive as it sounds. Maybe if enough public support is raised this could be changed.

    Posted by Sean McDougall (2)

    1. Yes, as of right now it is not a very cost effective plan. But purely as a brainstorm I think it is worth following up. We can only hope that in the near future the technology necessary becomes affordable, or there is more public support behind the issue.

      Hunter Alexander (1)

  2. While pondering on the effectiveness of these two unmanned cleaning drones it seems like it is actually a great idea. We can either prevent people from putting the junk in our oceans and space or we can take away the junk already in those places. Because people aren't abstaining from putting the junk in those areas, having an unmanned drone to pick up after ourselves is a brilliant idea. Lazy? yes. Smart and effective? yes. Sometimes being lazy is the reward we get from working smart and not hard.

    Marshall Moini (2)

  3. I think this is a step in the right direction and the use of these drones will likely be inevitable anyways so its good to know that we have the potential to start deploying these prototypes now. After a several years, I'm sure engineers will be able to improve the technology and make it more efficient so that it would become more widely put into practice. I was wondering how the ocean-based drones would be powered. Maybe with solar panels?

    Posted by Poya Jafari (2)

    1. Yes, there are some bugs left to work out. Solar panels are a good idea for sustainability, also seeing if it is possible to convert some of the junk being picked up into fuel would be a good way to try to sustain these robots.

      Hunter Alexander (2)