No, it’s not Wall-E. Its name is BeachBot, and it’s on a mission to make beaches cleaner, one butt at a time. Cigarette butt, that is. The BeachBot robot, or BB for short, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to focus its artificial eyes on one thing—cigarette butts. The beach rover, measuring about 2.5 feet wide, plucks cigarette butts out of the sand with its two gripper arms and deposits them into an on-board storage compartment for a fellow human to dispose of later. The with its oversized puffy tires, battery-powered BB beach-cleaning rig looks like it belongs on Mars—and who knows, maybe one day it will.
But for now, BeachBot belongs by the sea, helping eliminate some of the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts improperly strewn about Mother Earth. Since cigarettes are harmful to humans, it’s not surprising that the chemicals and microplastics are also harmful to sea critters, too, especially when water touches the butts and the filters leach toxic chemicals. The proliferation of this type of litter along Holland’s Scheveningen Beach was what propelled BeachBot creators Edwin Bos and Martijn Lukaart, co-founders of TechTics, to put the project into motion.
How does the BeachBot search for cigarette butts, discerning the variety of sizes, shapes, and angles in which they land in the sand, all while not sucking in beach towels, sandals, and other beach trash? (That’s right—BB does not collect general beach trash.) Simply, through training its image-detection algorithm, it learns what to look for. That training comes from images of cigarette butts, and those images come from us. TechTics uses the Microsoft Trove app, which connects a variety of AI developers with photo takers. In this case, the collected images are of various cigarette butts stuck in the sand every which-way. The more images BeachBot sees, the more new situations it can recognize and the more cigarette butts it can recover. TechTics pays contributors for their images, wanting to amass about 2,000 images.
Therefore, we can all teach BeachBot by submitting picture to Trove, and that’s pretty cool. Better yet, we can help BB out by picking up the beach trash we come upon; unfortunately, there seems to be plenty for everyone. The best thing, of course, is to not litter in the first place, starting with ourselves and trickling down to keeping others accountable for putting trash in trash cans. We can lead our children by example and instill in them the value of clean, pure sand for everyone to enjoy.
TechTics has more little robot buddies in the works that will help the BeachBot. These smaller companions will detect cigarette butts and notify BB where they’re located. BB and the li’l mapping buddies are all still works in progress. The BeachBot debuted at Scheveningen Beach during the World Cleanup Day in September 2020, where it scooped up 10 cigarette butts in 30 minutes. Okay, okay, it still has lots to learn—but it’s a great start.
Could AI robot technology be the future of cleaner beaches and environments? With continued refinement, could these robots really make a difference? Could their presence poke at our consciences and help the guilty become more mindful when it comes to trash and cigarette butts? We can only hope that someday we’ll need to teach BeachBot and its friends how to do other things.
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