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Robot ‘shark’ is eating plastic waste in London’s Thames river

Robot ‘shark’ is eating plastic waste in London’s Thames river

A robot “shark” is patrolling the waters in the Middle Dock at Canary Wharf to eliminate plastic pollutants from the Thames.

The battery-powered machine can gather up to 500 kilograms of floating plastic per day — the equivalent of 22,700 plastic bottles — while navigating five kilometres (three miles) of water.

Once the waste is collected, it is then recycled and given a second life as packaging, bags, furniture, building materials, and other items.

The Thames is the UK’s second-longest river, stretching about 215 miles (346km) across southern England. It drains the whole of Greater London and its tidal section is said to be home to some 125 species of fish.

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Pollution has become a major threat to the wildlife on the Thames, with separate studies previously revealing that it has some of the highest levels of microplastics compared to any other river in the world. Other types of rubbish found in the Thames include wet wipes, plastic cups, bottle lids and plastic takeaway containers.

The robot was deployed ahead of Global Recycling Day on March 18 by sustainable water brand Aqua Libra and the Canary Wharf Group. It will remain in the area’s waterways for at least three months. During this time, it will also monitor the water quality to identify potential contaminants that can harm the aquatic ecosystem.

The WasteShark can collect floating plastic from harder-to-reach areas in waterways due to its relatively small size (Aqua Libra)
The WasteShark can collect floating plastic from harder-to-reach areas in waterways due to its relatively small size (Aqua Libra)

The bot comes equipped with more than 15 different sensors that can measure things such as temperature, depth, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, blue-green algae, and crude and refined oils. It then beams that geo-tagged and timestamped info to its accompanying software hub for reporting and analysis.

WasteShark is the brainchild of Netherlands-based firm RanMarine. Like a self-driving car, the autonomous robot features an onboard LiDAR that can detect nearby objects using light beams. It weighs 75kg, and features two electric thrusters to help it maneuver in the water.

With a max speed of 3km per hour, it’s slower than the whale shark it takes its inspiration from, which can reach up to 4.8km per hour. However, its creators insists that it goes about its job silently, sticking to a pre-set route using a 4G mobile data signal.

A woman takes a picture as the WasteShark is lowered into the Middle Dock of Canary Wharf ahead of Global Recycling Day (Aqua Libra)
A woman takes a picture as the WasteShark is lowered into the Middle Dock of Canary Wharf ahead of Global Recycling Day (Aqua Libra)

The bot was designed to provide daily maintenance in smaller waterways that larger waste-collection vessels cannot reach. By comparison, large-scale solutions spend a disproportionate amount of time waiting for large areas of trash chokeholds to develop before they are deployed, according to RanMarine. This leads to much of the waste sinking to the bottom of a river, and becoming irretrievable, the company explains. The WasteShark, meanwhile, can hoover up floating plastics before they become a lingering nuisance.

Until we unleash plastic-chewing worms to tackle London’s fatbergs, marine robots may be a suitable line of protection for our rivers.