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Ohio Sea Grant Gears Up for New Season with Trash-Removal Tech | Ohio Sea Grant

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Ohio Sea Grant Gears Up for New Season with Trash-Removal Tech

12:00 pm, Sun April 28, 2024 – Ohio Sea Grant is gearing up for its second year using trash-removal devices BeBot and Pixie Drone to capture and clean up plastic litter on Lake Erie coastlines

This summer, if you see a robot scuttling around a Lake Erie beach or drifting across the water offshore, don’t be alarmed. BeBot and Pixie Drone are here to help.

Bebot, an electric beach-cleaning robot equipped with treads, can sift through the top layer of sand to collect debris without contributing to erosion or crushing flora and fauna.

A person stands next to a contraption on a beach

Jill Bartolotta, Ohio Sea Grant extension educator, operates BeBot on a Cleveland beach.

Meanwhile, Pixie Drone, a remote-controlled, boat-like device, can gather all kinds of waste floating on the water like Styrofoam and plastic bottles.

Ohio Sea Grant is gearing up for its second year using the two machines to capture and clean up plastic litter on Lake Erie coastlines. The project’s goal is to not only keep shorelines clean, but also to collect important data and engage with communities.

The effort, which launched in Ohio last year, is made possible thanks to a partnership with the binational Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) through the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup, a joint initiative of CGLR and Canada-based Pollution Probe, as well as generous funding and support provided from Meijer, a midwest retailer.

BeBot and Pixie Drone are tackling a big problem: approximately 22 million pounds of plastic litter and pollution enter the Great Lakes every year through pathways like beaches and storm drains, researchers estimate. So far, CGLR has deployed the devices in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

“It’s going really well,” said Jill Bartolotta, Ohio Sea Grant extension educator who specializes in marine debris. “We maintain the equipment, operate the equipment, and work with on-site partners. There was definitely a learning curve, but I feel like we’re kind of past that point and are now pretty efficient at using it.”

two people stand on the shore of a lake near a floating machine

In March, staff from Ohio Sea Grant and the Ohio Clean Marinas Program used Pixie Drone, pictured here, to collect debris at Indian Lake, Ohio, after severe storms and a tornado hit the area.

Since receiving federal funding last year, Ohio Sea Grant has used the trash-removal technology alongside students in the greater Cleveland area in a project titled Beach and On-water Trash Trapping Tech Team for Lake Erie, or BOTtttle. In a partnership with the Cuyahoga Community College Youth Technology Academy, Bartolotta and others are teaching students about the technology so that they can help train coastal partners to use it. Students attended a Pixie Drone training in February and have been learning about the issue of marine debris in Lake Erie.

In late March, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio Clean Marinas staff used Pixie Drone to assist with a land- and water-based debris cleanup at Indian Lake, Ohio, after severe storms and a tornado hit the area earlier in the month. The device was able to access floating debris in difficult-to-reach areas, and the effort ended up collecting over 70 pounds of debris.

“Our sympathies are with all of those who were affected by this natural disaster, and we hope to continue to partner with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to aid in recovery,” said Sarah Orlando, Clean Marinas program manager for Ohio Sea Grant.

Now, the two robots have a busy year ahead of them. In early May, Ohio Sea Grant and students from the BOTtttle program will be at Cedar Point’s Physics, Science, and Math Days to demonstrate BeBot and educate attendees about marine debris. For the rest of May and June, both devices will be used by on-site partner Cleveland Metroparks.

Then, in July and August, non-profit organization Eriesponsible will use the equipment in the Catawba Island area, in addition to planned appearances at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus and Lake Erie Awareness Day on South Bass Island. Another to-be-determined partner will use the devices in the fall as well, Bartolotta said.

person sorting through stones and plastic on top of a grate

Once the debris is collected, Ohio Sea Grant staff can conduct waste characterizations to identify what materials were present.

“We start the season in May, and then we go until about October,” she said. “It just depends on the weather, because you can’t use the equipment in bad weather.”

The robots themselves are able to collect tiny pieces of litter that are not easily cleaned by beach cleanup volunteers. Pixie Drone, for example, has a metal grate inside it that traps pieces that are 3 millimeters wide or larger.

“The front looks similar to a whale shark or a manta ray,” Bartolotta said. “It has a door at the front, so when it’s moving through the water, the current pushes the door down so the debris can be collected. When it stops, the door closes so trash can’t float out.”

BeBot — which operates almost like a vacuum cleaner or a lawn mower, Bartolotta said — scoops up sand and vibrates it over a grate, collecting debris as small as 5 millimeters. Users direct the machine with a remote control as it shakes the sand out.

Once the litter is collected, Bartolotta and Abigal Comar, Ohio Sea Grant community outreach specialist, conduct waste characterizations to identify what materials were found. The information is sent to the University of Toronto’s Trash Team, where it’s added to an international database of waste removed by similar technologies, as well as CGLR. The data can help inform both policymakers and consumers about plastic pollution.

“No one’s used this equipment before in our area, so we’re just trying to figure out what it’s picking up,” Bartolotta said.

a pile of debris on a beach in front of a machine

BeBot, pictured here, can sift sand, rake seaweed, and level sandy areas to
remove plastic waste and other
debris without harming the local
environment.

Another aim of the project is to learn how to use the equipment strategically. Currently, obtaining and operating the technology is very expensive, Bartolotta said, so the machines could potentially be shared by multiple parties throughout the year.

Plus, simply using BeBot and Pixie Drone on public beaches is an important conversation starter, Bartolotta said.

“People want to know what this equipment is, what it’s doing,” she said. “And then you can have a whole conversation about picking up your trash and using less plastic.”

Ohio Sea Grant is supported by The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University Extension, and NOAA Sea Grant, a network of 34 Sea Grant programs nation-wide dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of marine and Great Lakes resources. Stone Laboratory is Ohio State’s island campus on Lake Erie and is the research, education, and outreach facility of Ohio Sea Grant and part of CFAES School of Environment and Natural Resources.

ARTICLE TITLE: Ohio Sea Grant Gears Up for New Season with Trash-Removal Tech PUBLISHED: 12:00 pm, Sun April 28, 2024 | MODIFIED: 11:05 am, Tue April 30, 2024
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