BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Florida’s efforts to keep beaches clean and save lives in the ocean are taking a high-tech turn with the introduction of a cleaning robot.
“This is BeBot, and it cleans the beach,” said Bryan Bobbitt, executive director of Keep Brevard Beautiful. “BeBot is a solar-powered and electric robot that will actually sift through the sand and remove all the microplastics and sift everything out.”
Bobbitt said BeBot is the first robot of its kind in the world, and he hopes it will make cleaning the beach more efficient.
According to Keep Florida Beautiful, BeBot was donated by Surfing’s Evolution & Preservation Foundation, and it was designed by Poralu Marine in Europe.
“It doesn’t take long to fill up this tray full of stuff,” said Bobbitt as he steered Be-Bot down a stretch of Cocoa Beach near Minuteman Causeway.
The basket behind the robot filled with shells and pieces of garbage that were sifted through a basket.
“Here’s a plastic bag, several bottle caps, a sticker to a ‘Star Wars’ thing, a straw, a cigarette butt, a plastic fork handle and a dental pick,” Bobbitt said.
As one could imagine, a robot driving on a beach attracted attention.
“Is it autonomous?” asked one man.
“No, I have to drive it, but it’s remote-controlled,” Bobbitt said.
“I thought you guys were cleaning the beach, but then, I also thought maybe -- are they testing something lunar? That seems strange,” said Sarah Romano, who was visiting from Detroit. “My brain was just whirling as to what this could be, and then I saw ‘cleaner.’ I’m going to go ask them. I’m not disrupting a NASA project.”
Bobbitt said KBB volunteers also continue to collect garbage by hand. In fact, they collected more than 145 tons of it in one year alone along the Brevard County coast.
But, it’s the smaller pieces of garbage that BeBot is able to pick up that could be a game-changer.
“That is a microplastic,” he said. “It was a piece of something bigger -- maybe a Frisbee or a beach toy or whatever. It gets left out here on the sand, they get sunbaked, they break down and eventually go into smaller and smaller pieces. So, that is the definition of a microplastic. Now, the problem is that stuff can end up in the water. Fish eat it, turtles eat it, other wildlife eat it, and we often eat them.”
Shell Webster, education coordinator for the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, said that plastic can impact marine life, like sea turtles.
“When they’re in the ocean, they’re looking for food or holding their breath and diving down to go and get things like jellyfish,” she said.
But sometimes, that “jellyfish” can actually be a plastic bag that someone discarded and is now floating in the ocean.
Swallowing it can cause the sea turtle’s hindquarters to float, causing serious issues in the water.
“We’ve got some fishing line, (and) it gets entangled around their flippers, as well as around their necks,” said Alyssa Hancock, assistant manager of sea turtle rehabilitation at the Marine Science Center, where she has helped her team save the lives of more than 25,000 reptiles.
She said many of the creatures were sea turtles trapped in garbage.
“So, Ghul was one that we actually found plastics in his (gastrointestinal) tract,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do see this a lot with these guys. I don’t know if you can tell, but it’s actually really hard plastics. So, the problem with that is if it’s going through his gut, it’s actually going to cause lacerations and issues with his gut, as well.”
Hancock said humans need to change their habits to help solve the problem.
“We would really like people to focus on lowering their plastic use. So, we try not to use water bottles, we try to use reusable water bottles,” she said. “Don’t use plastic bags. If you have reusable bags for shopping, that can really help as well.”
Monitoring the waters
Similar waste is found across Ponce Inlet at the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach.
“We find items like bottles and bottle caps that may have flown off someone’s boat as they were driving by,” said Tess Sailor-Tynes, the organization’s conservation science coordinator. “We find plastic bags. Fishing line is left behind a lot of the time.”
She said her organization uses “citizen scientists” to help monitor what is in the water.
Their laboratory used to house New Smyrna Beach High School, and one of the sites where they test water is marshland that now covers what used to be a track and field.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a soup of plastic -- I wouldn’t go that far,” Sailor-Tynes said. “We do find that there’s a large concentration of those fibers. Most of that you’re not going to see with the naked eye. So, although you may see the larger plastics that are floating in the water, this is a concern that not a lot of people consider because we can’t see them.”
Citizen scientists collect water samples at various sites around Volusia County during the first weekend of the month.
“I’m going to be collecting a water sample from the kayak launch,” volunteer Ed Loomis said. “We’re going to be looking for the presence of microplastics in the water.”
The 79-year-old collected a 1-liter sample of water, filtered it back in the laboratory and analyzed the filter under a microscope.
He said it’s common to find traces of microplastics, some as small as a hair, on the filter.
“It’s something that gets in your blood, and you just have to do what you can and do it while you’re still able to do it,” Loomis said.
“I think at a personal level, a lot of questions that people ask are, ‘What can I do?’ That looks like different things for different folks,” Sailor-Tynes said. “So, whether it’s being a part of our volunteer system and coming out and helping those or someone who lives on the waterway and says, ‘What can I do?’ Well, you can always kind of get back to those natural elements and see what’s occurring around us. That actually helps us out.”
While the idea of robots cleaning the beaches may be intriguing, Bobbitt said it’s not the ultimate solution.
“This thing is just the start. It’s the first of its kind in the country, and we’re very honored to have the opportunity to be able to test it out,” he said. “As we work on it more, and we kind of figure out and work out some of the kinks, I think we’re going to see more and more of these types of machines all along the beach and roadways. They will just kind of help make a difference in the community. So, I think this is kind of a way of the future, but we’re always going to have to have humans do the right thing first, and hopefully, we would never need to get that far with these to begin with.”