Local drone innovation cleans up water pollution
South African entrepreneur Richard Hardiman has developed a solar-powered aqua drone that can autonomously clean up water pollution and waste in waterways and ports to stop it from being pulled out into the open ocean.
Hardiman, who spent many years as a radio DJ on KFM and as a director at online radio station 2OceansVibe, came up with the idea three years ago. The concept was to create a nautical drone that could operate with little or no human supervision, and be able to clean the water surfaces in harbours and canals by scooping up debris, marine waste and chemical substances.
He wanted to come up with a water version of the animated Pixar character WALL-E, a drone that cleans up trash without human input. The Capetonian then founded RanMarine Technology and the WasteShark was born.
The aqua drone is powered by solar panels and batteries, and is equipped with sensors to feed data to authorities on the water quality, weather and depth of the harbour basin. It is also enabled with GIO mapping to ensure the drones don't get in the way of waterway traffic and swarming capabilities, so multiple drones can hone in on major spills and problem areas in the harbour.
"They act in unison with each other and learn their way around the ports. We have an algorithm that essentially makes them learn the most optimal and efficient route depending on weather and tides," explains Hardiman.
"Obviously, in busy ports you can't have the drones just floating around, there is too much major traffic that we don't want to get involved with. So apart from collision avoidance aboard, we also use geo-fencing. Each drone is programmed and then fenced off to work in a particular area, almost like an imaginary boom, and this is all programmed by an online dashboard so the controller gets real-time feedback."
They also have cameras on board and can be manually taken over if required.
"Humans are very good at forgetting where waste truly ends up. If it's not going into some landfill somewhere, then odds are it has ended up in a storm-water drain, river or outlet and then off into the ocean never to be seen again; by humans that is," says Hardiman.
Coming from Cape Town, Hardiman says he has a deep love for the ocean and believes that keeping manmade waste out of the world's oceans should be an important project for mankind as a whole.
"In a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it stated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish. Right now, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute."
Hardiman says 70% to 80% of the plastic that ends up in giant plastic islands out in the ocean comes from manmade areas like harbours, ports and urban waterways - something the WasteShark is trying to counteract.
"Last year, we dumped about 65 million tons of plastic into the ocean. In 10 years' time, we are looking at 155 million metric tons, which is the equivalent of chucking 310 million Mini Coopers into the ocean."
He says the initial idea for the WasteShark was not necessarily born out of being ecologically-minded but rather that he saw how harbours and marine waste management were dealing with the problem and thought he could help improve on it.
"I just saw a more effective solution to the problem. The end result, though, is a greener planet, which was achieved by developing a sustainable idea which also delivers on good business practices."
Prototype at work
The WasteShark is still in the prototype phase and is being tested in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, where Hardiman now lives.
The WasteShark skims the top 45cm of the water's surface and can collect up to 500kg of waste at a time. It is also capable of operating 24 hours a day.
"The rubbish is disposed of through multiple channels, whether it is recyclable or not. We are partnering with specific companies here in Europe who deal specifically with waste recycling and separation so as to make sure that what we do collect is environmentally recycled and repurposed."
Hardiman says it's unlikely any fish or other animals will get scooped up by the drone but there will be docking station staff on hand to sort through the flotsam when it gets back to port, just in case.
"In trails we have found that any wildlife, fish, birds, etc, have swum out of the way well before the WasteShark arrives. It only moves at an operational speed of two knots so there is plenty of time for the animals to 'escape'."
He assures the autonomous drones won't replace humans or threaten their jobs, as they will require some human interaction from those collecting waste from their offload stations.
"RanMarine also has plans to up-skill workers, especially from South Africa, to build and operate the drones, creating employment opportunities."
Hardiman aims to have thousands of drones in the water globally over the next three years. For now, the company is based in Europe but he has big plans to bring the technology back to SA to help clean up local waterways.
"We are interested in teaming up with local port authorities in South Africa, especially in my hometown of Cape Town. As soon as we can present a product-ready drone to the city, we'll be more than keen to partner up.
"We are a green tech company but ultimately a commercial entity that needs to make a profit. We need investment to grow and we are currently talking to a number of interested parties for the next stage. We are also obviously talking to global partners that can help us scale more easily globally," he says.
RanMarine Technology was recently selected from a pool of 1 700 global start-ups and marine companies to take part in the world's first Port Accelerator Programme (PORTXL) in Rotterdam.
PORTXL is a mentorship initiative that focuses on developing innovation in port-related industries. The course includes a 100-day intensive programme, with world experts in the field, developing business plans ? and ideas ? that eventually culminates in pitching the business idea to an audience of customers, venture capitalists and journalists to get funding.
Hardiman already has the next RanMarine product prototyping at the moment.
"I cannot say too much about this one at this stage but it is very much focused on the oil and gas industry offshore...but we are very excited and it involves more drones," he concludes.