Florida nonprofit uses robot to clean beach

Nonprofit is the 1st in the nation to use robot to clean Florida coasts

There is nothing more Florida than enjoying a weekend stroll along the beach on a gloriously sunny day.

Wind blowing through your hair, salty spray hitting your face and cigarette butts squishing between you toes... Wait, what?

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More and more these days, this is an increasingly real-life scenario when visiting the Florida coast—garbage left behind by sun lovers who don’t love picking up after themselves. They leave behind things many might consider small and harmless but that prove to be major pollutants on our beaches and in our waterways.

“We can definitely do better and everyone has a part,” said Savanna Christy with Keep Florida Beautiful. “Residents and visitors alike here in Florida can do their part to keep our beaches, neighborhoods, communities (and) green spaces clean year-round, not just during high traffic seasons.”  

Christy joined anchors Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin on Florida’s Fourth Estate to talk about innovative ways to keep our beaches beautiful and litter-free.

March and April are popular spring break months and Florida beaches are seeing record numbers of visitors hitting the sand. One look at the crowds up and down the beach, as well as glimpses into stuffed restaurants and booked hotels, and you realize this is not like spring break at the height of the pandemic.

Students who have been cooped up because of COVID-19 for the past two years are back and they have some lots of partying to catch up on.

To be fair, it’s not just spring breakers. People from the Midwest and other winter-ridden areas are on the hunt for hot spots and Florida is at the top of the list.   Intentional or not, many of them leave behind a lot of trash.

That’s where BeBot, a beach robot, comes in. Its job is to clean up after trashy beachgoers. Christy says BeBot does an impressive job in picking up litter we don’t often see with the naked eye.

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“It is meant to go over soft dry sand and it sifts the very top layer of sand, removing very small pieces of debris that are often missed in manual cleanups,” Christy said. “It doesn’t quite capture microplastics at this point—by definition, those are 5 millimeters and smaller. BeBot will capture anything that is a centimeter squared and larger. But it does pick up, plastic fragments, bottle caps, cigarette butts, plastic straws, food wrappers. You name it, it’s picking it up and sifting it out of the sand.”

BeBot was donated to Keep Florida Beautiful by Surfing’s Evolution & Preservation Foundation.

It is the first versatile, eco-friendly beach robot made for cleaning our coasts.

Thanks to the foundation, Keep Florida Beautiful is the first nonprofit in the U.S. to use this new technology to remove debris, help preserve beaches and spread awareness about litter prevention.

And BeBot has some pretty impressive stats. The 900 pound rover is remote-controlled and 100% electric and solar-powered.

The robot made its Florida debut at the Ron Jon Beach ‘N Boards Fest in Cocoa Beach in Brevard County.

Christy said there was a big crowd at the event and BeBot got a lot of attention.

“Our goal with the BeBot is to bring it out during these events when there is a crowd and there are people around,” Christy said. “To capture their attention, to draw attention to the issue and it sparks an opportunity for education.”

Christy said during the festival in Cocoa Beach people were curious, taking pictures and asking more questions about what it can do.

The person who was answering all those questions on the beach was Bryan Bobbitt of Keep Brevard Beautiful. He was also the one in charge of BeBots remote control that day. 

It’s worth noting this doesn’t mean there will be a fleet of these giant Roomba-like vehicles roaming the beaches. Also, BeBot is not autonomous, so there will always be someone nearby watching  and controlling where it goes.

The big rover is remarkably quiet, so should you encounter it on one of your romantic beach strolls you likely won’t hear a thing.

On its sole outing this year, BeBot picked up a lot of small pieces of litter, especially cigarette butts.

“Cigarette butts were probably the more frequent thing it was capturing,” Christy explained. “It is known that cigarette butts are consistently one of the top littered items on beaches and on coasts not only in Florida, but all over the country, all over the world. The Ocean Conservancy pulls together data each year when they do their International Coastal Cleanup and cigarette butts consistently are up there at the top.”

Beach robot picks up small debris in the sand (Keep Florida Beautiful)

There’s a reason for the big push to keep butts off the beaches. Those little cotton filters often end up being ingested by birds and other sea life.

And let’s be honest, no one is coming to Florida beaches if they aren’t pristine. Litter and debris on beaches are a big turnoff to visitors who have seen the ads tempting them with the Florida sunshine and sugar white sand.

Christy said even if you don’t live on the coast, the litter where you live still has an impact.

“Over 80% of litter will end up in our waterways coming from upland sources,” she explained. “Even if you’re not on the coast, your environment will eventually impact our waterways, so removing those small plastics before they have the chance to enter the water, that is also part of the goal.”

And it’s not just gross for people who stumble upon it on the beach. It can be downright deadly for wildlife.

“It does impact wildlife whether we are talking about shore birds, sea turtles, manatees, fish, jellyfish, you name it. The litter and marine debris that gets into the waterways and is found in these coastal habitats will have negative impacts,” she told us.

While having a beach vaccuum robot like BeBot is great, Christy said the goal is to keep the beaches beautiful ourselves.

“We’re always encouraging people to pack it in, pack it out,” she said.

So the next time you’re at the beach and you see BeBot, don’t be afraid. Be curious about how we can help keep Florida beautiful.


About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.