Solar-powered robot designed to help tackle ocean’s plastic crisis

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SAN DIEGO -- University of San Diego students tested a solar-powered robot on Friday that is designed to tackle the growing crisis of plastic debris in the ocean.

The name of the robot, FRED, stands for Floating Robot for the Elimination of Debris. The nonprofit Clear Blue Sea developed the robot with help from interns from USD.

The small-scale prototype has a four-foot-long conveyor belt attached to two pontoons, which is designed to scoop up the estimated five trillion plastic pieces in the ocean and carry that plastic to ships and -- eventually -- back to land. The team behind the prototype demonstrated its abilities in Mission Bay using ping pong balls.

“Our demo was really successful," said fifth-year student Cameryn Seymour. "It passed all of its tests. We’re really excited to see a larger scale out in the ocean.”

FRED began as a senior design project sponsored by Clarity Design, Inc.

“We’ve got to solve this problem. It's getting more and more urgent every day," said Tom Lupfer, CEO and founder of Clarity Design, Inc., and a professor at USD.

Lupfer said the full-scale FREDs will be approximately 15 times larger than the prototype. Engineers hope to eventually deploy hundreds of them to areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between the U.S. and Japan, it's now twice the size of Texas, Lupfer said.

"The longer the plastic is in the ocean, it gets pounded against itself and other things and it's turning into microplastic," Lupfer said. Microplastic is being ingested by fish which, in turn, are eaten by people. "They are finding that this microplastic is ending up in our food system.”

The "mini" FRED is steered remotely. It will eventually be fully autonomous and monitored by satellites.

"We have cameras on the FREDs. We want to pipe them into the elementary schools so kids learn what happens if they throw a coke bottle into the water at the beach," Susie Baer, founder of Clear Blue Sea, said.

Engineers hope to deploy full-scale versions of the robot in the next four to five years.

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