Rotterdam, the innovation-minded Dutch city that relies on the unexpected and the unorthodox to tackle issues such as aging infrastructure and air pollution, is at it once again.

This city’s newest left-field problem-solving scheme involves the deployment of four particularly ravenous sharks to clean up the waters surrounding the city’s sprawling seaport — the largest and busiest in Europe. True to their given status as one of ocean’s most opportunistic feeders, the sharks in question have been “trained” to gobble up marine litter and debris — plastic refuse, in particular — before it drifts out of the port and into the North Sea.

The Port of Rotterdam’s resident sharks aren’t actual Chondrichthyes, of course, but aquatic drones designed to capture trash floating in the port’s basins. Aptly dubbed Waste Sharks, the vacuum cleaner-esque remote controlled vessels are about the size of small passenger cars and, when all is said and done, can devour over 1,100 pounds of trash before returning to shore to deposit their catch. (As you can see in the above and below photos, the drones being tested in Rotterdam are smaller than the high-capacity "Great Waste Sharks" which, if all goes as planned, will eventually released in Rotterdam and beyond).

Key to the drone-boat’s design is a gaping “mouth” that hangs roughly 13 inches below the surface of the water. In this sense, Waste Sharks are akin to plankton-eating basking sharks, which employ remarkably massive maws to feed. That is, these plus-sized filter feeders needn’t hunt for their next meal, they just have to simply open their ginormous mouths for a couple of short minutes.

In addition to serving as the basking shark’s garbage-gulping robo-cousin, the Waste Shark has been described by its creator, Richard Hardiman of environmental technology startup RanMarine Technology, as “Wall-E of the water.”

The comparison makes sense if you recall the mission of the lovelorn trash compactor-bot featured in Pixar’s critically acclaimed 2008 blockbuster. Sure, the scenario is dramatically different than the one depicted in “WALL-E” mainly in that Earth has not been completely trashed and subsequently abandoned. However, Hardiman’s Waste Sharks do indeed serve a similar purpose: dutifully cleaning up the unholy mess left behind by humans.

Waste Shark, a trash-eating drone in Rotterdam Making it safer to get into the water: A small version of Waste Shark, a trash-collecting autonomous drone, hits the water at the Port of Rotterdam. (Photo: RanMarine)

A native of Cape Town, South Africa, now based in the Netherlands, Hardiman explains that his litter-ingesting aqua-drone concept, which is solar-powered and possesses the “ability to learn its environment and become more efficient in its routes and collections," isn't so brainy in that it will put humans out of work.

It is capable of 24-7 operations and is intelligent; it builds knowledge. It doesn’t replace humans and jobs; we still require the same interaction of those that were collecting the waste but our intention is to up-skill workers to operate the Sharks and at the same time collect far more waste.

As Hardiman goes on to note, Waste Shark was designed to cut marine waste off at the source, in harbors and heavily trafficked industrial waterways such as at the Port of Rotterdam, before it has the chance to accumulate and form into unwieldy masses in the open ocean:

Humans are very good at forgetting where waste truly ends up. It if its 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. The impact of plastic soup and these huge plastic islands out in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere cannot be underestimated.

There are a number of operations and projects that are cleaning up the oceans and developing amazing technology to bring down the amount of plastic contamination in the water, however much of that is been done in open seas; our intention has always been to trap it at source, tourniquet the pollution before it gets to be a problem out there.

Excellent. But what happens once Waste Sharks reach their maximum payload?

The RanMarine website explains that the drones automatically return to a designated area when they reach full-belly capacity. Here, they are emptied and their "catch" is handed over to waste management partners for sorting and, ideally, recycling. In terms of interaction with larger vessels, the site notes that the drones "do not operate in an uncoordinated and indiscriminate manner in high traffic areas" and are visible to shipping traffic in accordance to maritime laws. So far, the drones have not inadvertently captured fish although as RanMarine jokingly notes, "if we do start catching fish, we may just pivot into the fishing industry."

Accidentally trawling aside, a quartet of sensor-laden Waste Sharks can now be found patrolling the Port of Rotterdam’s waterways as part of Port XL, a tech start-up accelerator — or “open innovation program focused on port-related industries” as the Port of Rotterdam co-sponsored scheme refers to itself— launched to bring efficiency- and sustainability-minded innovations to this sprawling maritime commerce hub connected to the North Sea by a ship canal known as the Nieuwe Waterweg.

As Port XL explains, Rotterdam's port is already famous for being Europe’s largest. By supporting and implementing forward-thinking innovations such as Waste Sharks, which can be found swallowing/collecting waste during a 6-month pilot as part of the port's “plastic soup”-mitigating Waste Catch initiative, Port XL hopes that the Port of Rotterdam will also be known as the world’s smartest.

Joining Waste Sharks as a Port XL-developed innovation is Aquassmart XL, a camera-equipped aquatic drone geared not to eat garbage but to assist port workers in keeping things running safely and smoothly — a roving extra eye, if you will, to join Hardiman's not-so-fearsome nautical Roombas.

Via [PopSci]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Trash-devouring 'sharks' patrol the Port of Rotterdam
The car-sized aquatic drones gobble up trash, not chum.