Top tech solutions for saving our ocean

Technology can be a blessing and a curse. It gives us the plastic we throw away, which pollutes our oceans. It also gives us the solutions to help protect those oceans.

To say that technology is good or bad misses the key point about any kind of tool. Like other tools, they can only be as good as the people who wield them. While the news is full of threats to our ocean from human activity, what follows are the tools we can use to make a difference.

1.) Unmanned robots astride the waves

If you think about it, the ocean surface is one of the best places to soak up the Sun’s rays, there is also an immense amount of energy to be gained from the waves too. But how do we collect large amounts of data easily in such a place? Over 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is water, and it can be tricky to have manned missions to all parts of the ocean at one time. Robots offer a novel way of gathering vital data on the environment.

That’s precisely what the Wave Glider SV3 robots are doing, created by Liquid Robotics. Shaped like surf boards, these flat robots harness the energy of the waves and the Sun’s rays, using a hybrid tidal/solar power source to keep them going. The devices have a minimised impact on the environment, with no risk of leaking fuel during their lengthy periods at sea. The SV3 robots are designed to collect detailed data in order to improve marine/weather models, giving us the help we need in tracking our changing climate, but with a minimal impact on their surroundings.

2.) Smart fishing systems catch on

The fishing industry is highly intensive and with tonnes of seafood to be caught every day, it can be easy to lose track of what is being hauled to the surface. An idea announced in the last year called SmartFish H 2020 is a multi-national research project which is already developing, testing and promoting a whole host of tech-based solutions to revolutionise the EU fishing sector. Devices which can collect data on fish stocks, including their weight will give fishing vessels an idea which kinds of seafood they have caught and in what quantities.

One form of hardware the project intends to use is SmartGear, using sound and LED technology to ensure optimisation in the catching of fish, based on the knowledge of how different fish react to specific light levels. Smart solutions such as these deter the kinds of fish which aren’t intended to be caught, and attract the ones which are, lessening the risk of unintentional capture of marine life in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3.) A slick way to clean up oil spills

Much of the oil we use to power our economies is sourced from the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, accidents do happen, resulting in oil spills, though thankfully these are few and far between. However, when they do occur, the effects on the environment can be devastating. As oil is less dense than seawater, it floats as a toxic choking slick on the surface, smothering marine life and making the ocean out of bounds.

When oil spills occur, the simple solution is to use chemicals to break up the oil in the water or burn it in-situ. Neither are necessarily ideal, as they might both contaminate the water and the air. The Sea Otter from PPR Alaska intends to scoop the oil off the ocean surface and leave virtually nothing but water behind in its wake. The device is light and compact, serving as a skimmer where special valves allow floating tanks to suck oily water in and collect the oil at a 99 per cent oil/water ratio, meaning most of the waste they collect is actually just oil. What a slick way of solving getting rid of unwanted oil.

4.) Managing microplastics in the water

Microplastics are the scourge of the ocean: small broken up pieces of plastic which only get smaller and smaller over time, compounding the problem of plastic pollution. The issue has become so entrenched that we have already contaminated our own bodies with the stuff, as microplastics we produce wind up in the bodies of fish and other animals which ingest contaminated seawater. Non-profit advocacy group Ocean Conservancy intends to combat this hydra-like issue with multiple solutions on various fronts.

In the home, having your washing machine upgraded could become a must-have, as special filters in newer washing machines could stop micro-fibres being washed into the sea. Special rain gardens which capture the water from rainfall before it enters storm drains could limit the amount of plastic washing into the sewers. Another option involves placing containers called Seabins at the mouths of rivers or marinas, where they can trap thousands of stray pieces of plastic before they get out to sea in just 24 hours alone.

5.) Waste Shark in the water

Almost half a century after cinema-goers were terrified by the menace of the shark in Jaws (1975), a more hi-tech version lurks off the coast. Its name is Waste Shark, but it means us no harm, quite the opposite. Devised by Dutch tech geniuses, Waste Shark is a remote-controlled drone which gobbles up waste in the water before it has a chance to escape into the deeper water. Like a basking shark, the Waste Shark glides through the water with its mouth wide open, not returning to shore until its controllers are satisfied it has a full stomach.

Waste Shark not only has uses in collecting waste products from humans, but scooping up excess biomass which risks making waterways inhospitable to aquatic flora and fauna, helping maintain a healthy balance. The Netherlands is famed for its love of waterways, and the Waste Shark is estimated to be so efficient, it can collect 500kg of waste in one single day. What starts in the waterways ends up in our oceans, so RanMarine is doing its part to eliminate water-borne waste at the source.

As you can see, many of the solutions to help keep our ocean and waterways clean involves more futuristic devices including robots and drones, while using altogether-different approaches. Rather than using nets indiscriminately, simply using LEDs, for example, helps limit the damage of large-scale fishing catches. Solutions to keep fish populations healthier and larger, or tidying up the ocean are right under our noses. We just need to put our thinking caps on and think outside the box.

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