Researchers in California are combining drone-captured imagery with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology to solve an age-old problem, finding plastics and other trash strewn along the banks of creeks and streams before it can be swept away and wind up adding to the growing pollution of a bay or an ocean.
With funding from the California Ocean Protection Council, the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the San Francisco Estuary Initiative (SFEI) is using a DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone to fly over designated areas along stream and creeks throughout the state to capture multiple images. These images can be analyzed in real time to identify pieces of trash much more quickly and efficiently than through the use of more conventional methods.
Another advantage to using a drone, rather than a team of people on foot, to survey an assessment area is it allows the researchers to visit the same site multiple times. Besides, the relatively inexpensive Mavic 2 Pro does not require great financial budget compared to the conventional methods.
SFEI’s work using drone-created images and AI software to identify relatively large pieces of trash, such as plastic bottles, has led to the launch of another project to identify much smaller pieces of waste from the air. With funding from the California Department of Public Health, the institute has created another algorithm to analyze drone-collected images to detect cigarette butts.
With its new algorithm and other software tools provided by its partners Kinetica and Oracle, and with a drone capturing images from an altitude of 18 meters, the researchers were able to successfully identify cigarette butts 90% of the time on hardscape surfaces like asphalt parking lots. The institute is currently working to refine the learning algorithm, to enable the detection and identification of cigarette butts in other likely locations such as in parks and along footpaths.