A growing number of tech startups are focusing on waterways—using robots to clean them up and better understand what's happening beneath the surface. Here's a look at three.
A Roomba for waterways
Potentially toxic sediment builds up in waterways--with major environmental consequences. The stuff, for example, can smother marine life and increase flooding vulnerability. But the equipment typically used for dredging is highly labor-intensive, bulky, prone to damage the fish below and expensive. As a result, marinas often put off doing the job for as long as they can--often for 7 to 10 years--and when they finally get down to it, the task is so costly that some operations go out of business when they can't afford to pay the bill.
That's the problem Newton Parks and Monica Umeda decided to address through their Honolulu-based startup, called Akabotics. In 2015, Parks, an architecture PhD student at the University of Hawaii, and Umeda, who was getting a graduate degree in electrical engineering there, designed a robotic dredging system aimed at making the process easier and less expensive. "It's like a Roomba for waterways," says Parks, referring to the robotic vacuum cleaner.
Called the Microdredger and about as big as a queen-size-bed, the robot performs continuous, regular maintenance, thereby keeping sediment at a healthier level, since the longer the material is in the water, the greater is the likelihood that it becomes toxic, according to Parks. "It's the difference between getting a regular teeth cleaning vs. a root canal once in a while," he says. The equipment doesn't clean up the sediment. Instead, it's a tool for getting it to shore, where someone else removes it to another location, depending on its toxicity.
There are two systems. One is designed for larger areas and the other for marinas, where the robots are able to maneuver around boats and docks. The result: a 90% reduction in fossil fuel consumption compared to traditional methods and an up to 80% decrease in costs, according to Parks. They've designed a prototype and are now testing it out in pilots.
There's a plague of algae in waterways in Florida, California and other places, and Collegeville, Pa-based B.E.A.R. Group Oceanics has a way to deal with it. Its solar and wind-powered robot cleans up bodies of water and turns the waste into a useful material, in the process.
How does it work? During the clean-up activity, the robot seeks out toxic algae blooms, consumes them and turns the material into a paraffin, or beeswax. That, in turn, can be sold to cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies for $3 to $8 a gallon, according to founder Rudolph Behrens. "It turns algae into something productive," he says.
For example, according to Behrens, his robots are on a recently published list of 15 technologies approved by the State of Florida for lake cleanup. He figures the equipment can process the algae from about 10 acres of surface on Lake Okeechobee in South Florida, the site of a major outbreak, and produce around 200 gallons of paraffin.
Algae outbreaks are caused by fertilizer, inadequately treated sewage and animal manure seeping into waterways. That introduces phosphorus and nitrogen, which feed toxic algae. Last year, Lake Okeechobee's algae outbreak covered 200 square miles of the water body-- and the massive green slime was visible from space satellites.
According to Behrens, he's been working on the technology for seven years, testing it out first on a pond on a farm nearby. "The environment is unraveling," he says. "And we have to weave it back together."
About seven years ago, Simeon Pieterkosky's daughter came home from school and told him she wanted him to save the seas. So the mechanical designer and robotics expert got to work studying oceans and fish.
What he came up with was a robotic fish, co-founding Aquaai, which is now based in San Diego, three years ago to develop and sell it. Co-founder Liane Thompson calls it a "bio-inspired vehicle "that can continuously swim below the surface of the ocean, gathering data on anything from oxygen and pH levels to spawning fish for later analysis by scientists and sustainable fisheries. Ultimately, they hope that data will persuade people to modify their behaviors.
The robot can assume a variety of fish-swimming patterns, depending on how long a distance it has to travel. "Different fish use different swimming techniques," says Thompson. "Every part of the ocean requires another one." They're now in the process of producing their first commercial version, aiming to hit the market in early fall.