GLOBAL CHALLENGES: PROBLEM SOLVING FOR OUR FUTURE PLANET
Sprout teamed up with Draper and the EPA to combat one of the biggest problems in the world; microplastic contamination. They did this by creating the world’s first real-time microplastic-sensing system in the form of a full-size autonomous underwater drone. The drone will search, find, and analyze this invisible threat to the world’s oceans, coastal regions, and rivers. This will also enable scientists to understand where microplastics originate from and how to prevent them from contaminating our waters.
We designed a large intake on the front of the drone to filter a high concentration of microplastic into its internal processing unit while the excess water is flushed out the back. There are two proximity sensors located on either side of the intake that communicate with the GPS antenna to help the drone navigate the world’s waterways. The two thrusters located on either side of the processing unit that propels the drone and the rear rudders handle the steering. The large outer ring houses the batteries, control unit, and induction charger while the open chassis allows for easy deployment and retrieval. The battery powered drone is both low-energy and self-sustaining when paired with its self-docking, wind-powered, charging buoy. The project is also part of larger long-term strategic design initiative to develop an iconic visual brand language across Draper’s different divisions and product categories.
When the drone is deployed, it skims the top nine meters of the water scanning for microplastics, testing for specific types, and relaying GPS coordinates into a heat map, similar to a storm-tracking prediction in a weather forecast. Draper hopes to launch a Plastic Particle Pollution Index (pppindex.info, akin to the World Air Quality Index waqi.info) posting measurements and trend predictions of microplastic particle concentrations in the world’s oceans, coastal regions and rivers. Draper also plans to make its microplastic sensing technology widely available via open-sourcing so other can contribute to the ppp index.
MICROPLASTICS IN THE WATER: THE INVISIBLE THREAT
Visible plastics in the world’s oceans and waterways represent only a fraction of all plastic in the environment. Visible debris breaks down into microplastics, particles of less than 1 mm that are invisible to the naked eye. These particles attract pollutants in the water such as PCBs, DDT and flame retardants) and then enter the food chain. Little is known about the volume and distribution of microplastics in the water because no measurement solution exists currently. We’re developing the world’s first underwater real-time microplastic sensing system in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Wallace Research Foundation. Together, we’ll enable the public and policy makers to take the right actions to overcome the threat.