Turtle drone detects microplastics in oceans

Published November 9, 2019, 12:44 PM

by Rica Arevalo


Liberia (Costa Rica) – It might look like a turtle, have fins, a head, and a shell, but it’s a drone whose inner workings allow it to detect microplastics in the oceans.

Jason Mendez works on the Guardian Turtle in Liberia, Costa Rica, 8 November 2019. (EFE-EPA / CARLOS LEMOS / MANILA BULLETIN)
Jason Mendez works on the Guardian Turtle in Liberia, Costa Rica, 8 November 2019. (EFE-EPA / CARLOS LEMOS / MANILA BULLETIN)

Guardian Turtle, whose shell is made of recycled plastic, is one of 10 projects that 100 Ibero-Americans are rushing to get finished for Saturday, the final day of the sixth Civic Innovation Laboratory in Costa Rica.

Experts estimate that humans throw away about eight million tons of microplastics annually, while as individuals we ingest anywhere between 70,000-121,000 particles.

Although the effects remain unknown, the consequences are no less concerning.

Even if we stopped making plastics, the sheer amount of the stuff accumulated in the oceans would have us dealing with the problem for centuries.

This turtle drone, which can be built for 350 US dollars, syncs with a base on land as well as other models.

“They can have a separation of between 200 and 300 meters, more than a WIFI connection and with much less technology,” said Ricardo Guimaraes, the man developing the project along with an international team of youths from Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Colombia and Germany.

Thanks to a radio frequency connection, several turtles would be able to cover a wide area and send information to a base that would post the data online.

This modest drone, simple in its design and not expensive to build, is easy to assemble, according to its makers.

The shell imitates a turtle shell so that it can take advantage of the movement that a real life sea creature would experience in the water – allowing the device to be “more efficient” against the waves.

The heart and the head of the drone are key.

A box under the shell protects the PH sensor from water, a tube connected to a meter through which a water sample passes at 15 minute intervals and a laser beam differentiates microplastics from microorganisms.

“The idea is that this information goes to the local authorities so they are the ones who act and clean the waters,” Guimaraes explained.

The head contains the turtle’s other two sensors, one for temperature and another to indicate how turbid the waters are – values ​​”more related to climate change,” according to the Brazilian.

After just 10 days at the grindstone, the prototype is almost there.

But the designers say they still have time to improve it, specifically so that is can analyze the seafloor where the bulk of microplastics are.

“It is the most contaminated part, the salt sticks to the microplastics and makes them sink,” added the developer.

The project, one of the most technological ones in the lab, aims to end the event with a prototype operating at the highest level, as well as approach communities and foundations who could take the idea to local authorities.

“We have talked to many communities and the one that has been the most receptive is the fishing industry, but they don’t want to publicize the fact their waters are heavily contaminated,” as it could affect their livelihoods, he said.

“This is a citizen’s science project, so we wanted the turtle to be made cheap and with easy-to-find things,” said the developer.