How Robots Are Helping Clean Up the Environment

They’re not just for carpets anymore

Key Takeaways

  • A wide variety of robots are being designed to remove debris from beaches and in the ocean. 
  • A new beach-cleaning robot called BeachBot can autonomously pick up cigarette butts. 
  • The four-wheeled robot being developed by BC-Robop in Japan follows volunteers as they comb the beach for trash.
The BeachBot on a beach.

Techtics

Robots cleaners are making people’s houses tidier and could even play a part in helping to improve the environment. 

A new beach-cleaning robot called BeachBot rolls along the sand, picking up cigarette butts. It’s one of a growing number of autonomous robots that could help save the planet from trash and other contaminants. 

"Robots capable of moving along the shoreline, identifying trash, and collecting it could make a big impact on coastal environments by routinely performing this job," Jeffrey Laut, the CEO of  Manifold Robotics, which makes autonomous boats that collect environmental data, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"Think of something like a Roomba cleaning your floor, but on a much larger scale. Coupling that with solar energy could even allow them to do it for fairly long periods of time."

Roomba for Beaches

Edwin Bos and fellow entrepreneur Martijn Lukaart have built a robot that roams beaches and can spot cigarette butts, pluck them out of the sand, and dispose of them in a safe bin. The BeachBot uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn how to better find the strewn filters, even if they’re partially buried in the sand. 

The BeachBot makers have a partnership with the North Sea Foundation and will do a demonstration of their robots on August 5, 11, and 15, during an upcoming BeachCleanUp Tour. 

"We foresee a future where humans and machines will work together in a symbiotic way," Bos told Lifewire in an email interview. "This could become a trend for outdoor cleaning challenges and perhaps also for other global issues where human-robot interaction could disrupt the current standard."

The BeachBot isn’t the only beach cleaning robot roaming the sands. There’s also the four-wheeled robot being developed by BC-Robop in Japan that follows volunteers as they comb the beach. The humans gather trash in a basket on runners pulled by the robot. 

The robot can recognize people and automatically follow them as they move around looking for trash. Researchers plan to equip the robot with a mechanical arm so it can pick up trash on its own.

Bots to the Rescue

The BeachBot is one of several projects using robots to clean the environment; many of them focused on the water. A popular application for small-scale boats is to gather floating debris in waterways, Laut said. Other robotic devices are geared towards cleaning up oil spills. 

Cleaning beaches is more complicated than it seems. A robot needs to identify something as garbage and collect it, while leaving things like seaweed alone, Laut pointed out.  

"Although this has always been easy for a person to do, it's only recently becoming a possibility for a robot," Laut said. "So by equipping a robot with a camera, computer, and the appropriate software, it could make intelligent decisions on its own as to what should be collected as garbage, and what should be left on the beach."

People picking up trash from a sandy beach.

kmatija / Getty Images

New technology could make environmental cleaning robots even more effective. 

"Advances in computer vision and deep learning are allowing robots to intelligently identify objects that they see," Laut said. "The cost of the hardware to do this has been coming down, allowing it to potentially be deployed on a larger scale than previously possible."

Some interior cleaning robots also are designed with the environment in mind. 

For example, Avidbots’ autonomous floor scrubber, Neo, offers a water flow rate system designed to help minimize water use. The robot also can provide data about water consumption through web software. 

"We believe technology will continue to be an essential component to transition societies into a greener, cleaner, and pollution-free environment for all of us," Faizan Sheikh, the CEO Avidbots, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"Another clear illustration of robots helping the planet is the ability to ensure air at facilities is free of dust, dirt, debris, and biological contaminants. Neo does this by autonomously removing contaminants from the ground which would otherwise end up on other surfaces or in the air."

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