On December 2, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As an independent government agency, the EPA oversees all environmental protection matters in the United States. For the 2020 fiscal year, the EPA had a budget exceeding $9 billion to tackle some of the most pressing environmental issues weighing on the nation and the world. One of these issues that have become a major goal of the EPA, and many environmental organizations, is the overabundance of microplastics polluting waterways. Each year nearly 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into oceans. While huge efforts to stop this and clean up large pieces of plastic have been enacted, microplastic issues are something we still know little about.
What we do know is that microplastics come from larger pieces of plastic debris breaking down in the water. Some microplastics come from the microbeads used in many cosmetic products. These microbeads are made to pass through water without breaking down so they can be used to give an exfoliating effect. In 2015, the EPA banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics to stop the massive amounts being washed into the ocean. These plastics are often seen as food by marine animals. As the plastics can absorb harmful toxins, the animals that eat them can become sick and die. This also trickles down into the marine food chain as the animals ingesting microplastics are eaten by predators, including humans.
The EPA and other environmental agencies are currently researching to determine the volume and locations of microplastic, and the long term effects they will have on the environment. A key tool in assisting researchers on these projects have been drones. One drone concept looks so promising that it was voted as one of the top 100 inventions of 2019 by Time Magazine. As stated by Time, the inventions on their list are those “that are changing the way we live, work, play, and think about what’s possible.” Enter Draper, a drone jointly designed by Massachusetts based firms Draper and Sprout Studios.
Draper is an autonomous drone that glides through the top 30ft of the ocean where microplastics accumulate. Shaped like the body of a stingray, Draper pulls in water and analyzes it to detects microplastics. Once concentrations of microplastics are detected, the drone transmits GPS coordinates and chemical compositions of the plastics. This will allow researchers to understand how microplastic gather and affect waterways, providing the data needed to develop models to deal with the problem. As explained by Sprout, “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 communicates 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.”
Draper is a self contained, energy efficient autonomous drone. It is easily deployed from a floating buoy. Once the drone has swam through the water to collect data, it returns to the buoy to dock. The buoy is powered by the wind to recharge the drone. While the EPA backed Draper drone is still in its conceptual phase of design, a working prototype has been deployed in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii. Project lead Lou Kratchman explained that they were inspired to create Draper based on models already in place. “We need something that’s comparable to the world Air Quality Index,” he says. “Kind of a global weather map that, in real time, we can look and see how the microplastics situation is changing.” With the data collected by their drone, Draper plans to launch what they have termed the Plastic Particle Pollution Index, an open-source database.
The Draper drone will not be able to remove microplastics from waterways, but it will give researchers the information needed to do so in the future. The fact that the drone is inexpensive to manufacture and operate and easy to deploy makes it an ideal product to support the EPA’s goal of understanding how microplastics are impacting the environment. Ideally, Draper drones could be deployed in rivers, lakes, and oceans around the world to gather the critical information needed to combat the microplastic crisis.