Meet the man fighting plastic pollution with a fleet of A.I.-powered camera drones

That plastic cup you’ve got sitting on your desk looks pretty harmless on its own. However, add it to the rest of the plastic that humanity throws away on a daily basis and you have the makings of the estimated 5 to 13 million metric tons of plastic trash which reportedly wind up in the world’s oceans every year. U.K.-based Plastic Tide founder Peter Kohler got a glimpse of the scale of this problem a decade ago — and it changed the course of his life.

machine learning drone plastic problem peter kohler interview
Plastic Tide founder, Peter Kohler

“About ten years ago, I went out to the South Pacific,” he told Digital Trends. “I’ve always been fascinated by oceans, and this was pure paradise. But it was a paradise under siege. One of the most visible ways this paradise was being besieged was with litter. It was everywhere, although we were miles from anyone. When you’re sailing in the middle of nowhere, it really gets you wondering where this litter comes from and how it gets here. I came back to England and spent the next few years puzzling over how best to answer that question.”

Kohler’s questions led to answers, but not necessarily the kind that he wanted. One of the tidbits he discovered was that, not only do we have a huge marine littering problem, we don’t know where most of it comes from. Simply put, when plastics are dumped in the water they are quickly lost track of, making it hard to hold people accountable.

Photos are used to train an A.I. algorithm to recognize images of plastic trash.

But he has a solution — and it involves some pretty impressive cutting edge technology. “Plastic Tide aims to use tech, machine learning and citizen science to build a scalable local and global monitoring solution to this problem of marine litter,” he told Digital Trends.

The idea, in essence, is to use drone-mounted cameras to take thousands of aerial photos. These photos are then used to train an A.I. algorithm to recognize images of plastic trash to distinguish, say, a plastic bag from a jellyfish or a bottle cap from a seashell. A bit like the Captcha systems online that ask you to prove your humanness by decoding a squiggly row of letters or numbers, conscientious users can log on to the nonprofit’s website and help to tag artificial flotsam and jetsam.

“In the short term, this can be used to help with cleanup events by making us aware of the worst-impacted areas for humans, marine life and bird life,” Kohler continued. Just like the Captcha system, though, when you answer these questions correctly, you’re also helping to make the image recognition algorithms smarter so that they will one day be able to carry out this classification on their own. That will enable Plastic Tide to move onto the next stage of its goal: building a comprehensive system which can chronicle the spread of plastics in something much closer to real time. Instead of just looking at coastlines, Kohler said that this could “include coastal, sea surface, seafloor, rivers, and maybe even one day roads and railways. Everything that connects to the sea, basically.”

Being able to track the spread of plastic in this way will help with everything from discovering which companies are responsible for particularly egregious littering to visualizing the direct link between environmental policies and their impact on the world. “For example, here in the U.K. the government has banned plastic bags,” he said. “We can then see what that actually does to the amount of plastic on the coastline.”

However, there’s another part to the project — and i‹t’s one which also needs your help. In order to spot plastic in images, Plastic Tide needs images to spot plastic in. These are taken using drone-mounted cameras, snapped by a growing army of helpful volunteers. “Pretty quickly I started getting emails from people around the world asking how they could contribute images to help train the machine learning system,” Kohler said. “It became so big that I founded the Marine Litter DRONET to coordinate these efforts. It’s a mix of everyone from concerned individuals all the way up to research institutions and companies.” This aspect of the initiative has attracted some keen enthusiasts, such as 72-year-old Morris Enyeart, who has so far contributed upwards of 7,000 images.

“Plastics aren’t bad; it’s our misuse of them which is often bad.”

Kohler makes sure to stress that “plastics aren’t bad; it’s our misuse of them which is often bad.” Nonetheless, this is an area which desperately needs attention — and since it affects us all, it’s only right we all lend a hand where possible.

“We’re always happy to have people get involved,” he said. “They can volunteer to tag plastic by logging onto our website and clicking the button on the landing page. If they want to join the Marine Litter DRONET, they should send us a message. Plus, get involved with your beach cleaning efforts. That’s a great way of making you aware of the impact of everything that you throw away.”