Track the drift of sea plastic from space

Track the drift of sea plastic from space

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09.08.2022
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Every 60 seconds, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the world’s oceans. where does it end At the moment, researchers just don’t know. To find out, an ESA-led project developed floating transmitters whose passage can be tracked over time, which in turn helps drive a sophisticated software model of the accumulation of plastic debris in the sea.

Use of wooden trackers attached to plastic waste

In a high-tech version of discarding messages in bottles, prototype trackable buoys have been deployed in the waters off Indonesia, whose myriad islands give rise to some of the most complex and unpredictable currents on earth.

The buoys are made of wood for maximum sustainability and were developed by the French organization CLS, Collecte Localization Satellites. CLS, a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES, is best known for monitoring the satellite location of tagged marine life, buoys and fishing fleets using its long-standing Argos geopositioning system, which makes satellite navigation corrections and sends them back to CLS via a satellite link.

CLS used previous experiences with plastic waste in the sea in Indonesia for the buoy deployment. It has previously partnered with Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries to guide litter collection efforts – the country’s national marine pollution plan promises to reduce plastic waste by 70% by the end of 2025.

Along with the tracking buoys, the MARLISAT project also involves the use of Earth observation imagery to detect plastic sources and predict marine plastic debris movement and accumulation areas using an existing CLS ocean drift model called MOBIDRIFT.

Machine learning algorithm to detect plastic accumulation on beaches and in the sea

Project partner Pixalytics in Great Britain has now developed a machine learning algorithm that is able to detect accumulations of plastic on beaches and hotspots in the sea using satellite images.

“The strength of this project is the combination of satellite observations, in situ data and numerical modelling,” comments Marc Lucas, Senior Oceanographer at CLS. “It’s also great to have worked on a more sustainable type of Argos beacon using wood for the casing. As scientists, we have a duty to work towards a more sustainable approach to science.”

Guiding Ocean Drift model

The buoys were released at the end of May and tracked in real time via a special portal. Equipped with batteries for a lifespan of about 100 days, their results help to optimize the parameters of the drift model.

The MARLISAT project is supported by the discovery element of ESA’s grassroots activities. CLS participated in an open call for ideas on marine plastic debris via the agency’s Open Space Innovation Platform (OSIP), which draws promising new ideas for research from academia, industry and the general public.

Wooden buoy housing transmitter

ESA antenna specialists also advised on the design of the buoy, notes Peter de Maagt, Head of ESA’s Antennas and Submillimetre Waves Section: “It is a privilege to work on projects that use space for the benefit of mankind and start to solve the problem of the… tackle plastic waste in our oceans. The tag will provide valuable data to calibrate models and provide much-needed ground truth.”

MARLISAT is just one of a portfolio of research projects on plastic marine debris initiated by OSIP and supported by ESA Discovery.

Space technology to monitor plastic waste in the sea

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