On a beach in the English county of Kent, environmentalists are teaching a drone how to see.
They’re developing software that will one day allow it to automatically pick out the pieces of plastic that wash up here on this pebble-strewn beach.
This project, called Plastic Tide, is an effort to find out where plastic put into the sea actually goes.
“We get an off the shelf drone, we set it up with some standard apps that anyone can use and download, the drone takes off, it does a survey pattern of the beach, takes images of that beach, it then uploads it to the internet, to a crowd source platform, called Zooniverse, and then anyone, anyone no-matter where you are in the U.K. or anywhere else in the world, can tag on those images what is plastic and what isn’t plastic,” explains Plastic Tide founder Peter Koehler.
That then builds up a base of knowledge that can help a computer program detect plastic by itself.
Plastic Tide aims to repeat this experiment on the 3,200 miles (approx. 5,150 kilometers) of U.K. coastline; eventually they’ll develop an open source algorithm that anyone can use to map a beach anywhere in the world.
Here at an underground laboratory in London, climate scientists from Imperial College London are collaborating with Plastic Tide.
This wave tank can be programed to simulate any coastal area around the U.K.
These ping-pong balls act as plastic pollution. The scientists track the balls as they wash onto a replica coastline.
They then use that data to build models of how plastic moves around seas and coasts.
In time, those models will be combined with the data gathered on real beaches by Plastic Tide.
“In the end, it’s going to be about the whole world, but we’re focusing now on the U.K.,” said Erik Van Sebille, a climate scientist at Imperial College London.
“And our question is, ‘Whose plastic ends up where? How does whatever happens near our coastline determine where the plastic ends up? Does plastic from the Thames end up in Norway or in Norfolk? We really don’t know that now.”