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Floating Robot Could Clean Plastic Out Of The Ocean

Engineering student Desmond Jones in the water of Mission Bay Point with FRED...

Photo by John Carroll

Above: Engineering student Desmond Jones in the water of Mission Bay Point with FRED, Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris, on Aug. 9, 2019.

By the year 2050, our oceans are projected to have more plastic fragments in them than fish. That statistic comes from the San Diego non-profit “Clear Blue Sea.” The group has partnered with young engineers to do something about it.

In the waters off Mission Point Park, there was an odd sight on Friday morning: A floating contraption called FRED, which stands for Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris.

Listen to this story by John Carroll.

A lot of hard work by a committed group of students, interns and volunteers went into making FRED, with the goal of cleaning up the huge garbage patch called the Pacific Gyre.

Reported by John Carroll , Video by Matthew Bowler

FRED was put to the test, scooping up debris out of the bay — in this case, ping-pong balls.

"A lot of this is just proof of concept, just showing that we can actually do it in this manner, using the conveyor belt on a floating vessel," said engineering student Desmond Jones from USD.

The design behind FRED is simple. Two flaps in front, corral the debris onto a conveyor belt that transports it to a collection basket.

FRED is steered from the shore by an operator using what amounts to a video game controller. The eyes for the operator are provided by a camera mounted on the inside roof, and solar panels on the top power the machine.

"I think that’s what our prototype serves is like a creative, potential solution for the plastics out in the ocean," said Jazmyn Gonzales, a USD graduate.

When it comes to picking up ping-pong balls in Mission Bay, FRED proved that he’s up to the job. But for the Pacific Gyre they’re going need something a lot bigger and they’re working on it.

"We have to start small first. We don’t want to just like begin with the huge piece, and then have it go out and fail," Gonzales said.

This version of FRED is Phase 2 of a four-phase project. If everything goes as planned, Phase 4 will come on line in 2023.

"(They'll be) 100 feet and there’d be a fleet of them going around the ocean, communicating with each other and targeting the trash," Jones said.

FRED isn’t designed to clean up the increasing amount of micro-plastics in our oceans. It’s meant to prevent that problem in the first place.

"We are hoping to get the bigger plastics so it doesn’t break down eventually and make the problem worse," said Jones.

The potential for what this could mean to the health of the oceans makes it much more than just an engineering exercise for these young engineers.

"I think one of the most important projects I’ll work on in my life to be honest, I can just say that right now," Jones said.

"It is daunting, but at the same time, it has to be done. Someone has to do it," Gonzales said.


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John Carroll
General Assignment Reporter & Anchor

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI'm a general assignment reporter and Saturday morning radio anchor for KPBS. I love coming up with story ideas that aren't being covered elsewhere, but I'm also ready to cover the breaking news of the day. In addition, I bring you the local news headlines on Saturday mornings during NPR's Weekend Edition.

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