Researchers in Cluj, Romania are working on the first robotic system for cleaning the ocean floor

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A team of researchers from the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca is working with seven other European partners on an autonomous system for cleaning the ocean floor. This system, called SeaClear, consists of a surface vehicle with two underwater robots, which are going to identify and collect litter from the ocean floor. On the occasion of the World Oceans Day, celebrated on the 8th of June, the international SeaClear team announce that the crucial gripper component of the system has been completed, so the SeaClear system is almost ready for field testing.

Oceans around the world are polluted with 26 to 66 million tons of litter, such as plastic, bottles or rubber, most of which lies on the ocean floor. Currently, there is no robotic solution for collecting litter from the seabed, instead this is done with divers, in expensive and often dangerous actions.

The objective of the SeaClear project, in which Romanian researchers are involved, is to develop the first robotic system that can clean the ocean floor without human intervention. The project first considers coastal areas, since that is where the influx of litter is largest.

“The SeaClear system will include a robotic surface vessel, two underwater robots, and a drone”, explains Lucian Buşoniu, the leader of the Romanian team and professor at the Robotics and Nonlinear Control group of the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca (UTCN). “The smaller of the two robots scans the seabed with a camera and a sonar. Thus, it detects the location and type of litter, using artificial intelligence to distinguish between litter and aquatic life, such as fish and sea plants. The second robot moves to the litter sites, grabs the bits of litter with a gripper, and stores them in a basket. The gripper is designed with holes through which the fish can easily escape if they are accidentally caught. In clean water, the drone can also look for litter from the air”.

The Cluj team has a key role: building the underwater map, based on all the data from the robots involved. This is necessary to identify the location of the litter so that it can be collected later.

First tests in Dubrovnik

“The first steps of the project were the development and adaptation of robotic equipment” says Prof. Buşoniu. “Recently, two essential components for litter collection have been completed: the gripper, developed by German partners at the Technical University of Munich, and the litter basket, developed by another German research institution, Fraunhofer Hamburg.” The first tests of the components will take place in September this year, in the coastal area of Dubrovnik, in Croatia, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.

The Technical University of Cluj-Napoca will train the robots

In the future, the UTCN team plans to teach the observation robot to find its own path to the litter. “We aim to move from a predefined trajectory to an adaptive one, which finds litter much faster and with much lower energy consumption. Basically, we train the robot, using methods from artificial intelligence and reinforcement learning ”adds Prof. Buşoniu. “We already have a simulation prototype that proves this is possible; the integration and application of this prototype to the real robot system will be the main challenge for the next stage of the project.”

 

SeaClear is a European project that was launched on 1 January 2020. It runs until December 2023. The total budget is approximately EUR 5 million. There are eight partners from six countries and 49 researchers involved. The eight partners are: TU Delft, Hamburg Port Authority, TU Cluj-Napoca, Subsea Tech, TU Munich, Fraunhofer CML, Dubrovnik University and DUNEA.

This text does not represent the official position of the European Commission. The sole responsibility for the correctness and consistency of the information presented lies with the issuer of the press release.

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