Zurich – Students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are working on the development of new technologies for the automated removal of waste from rivers. In a pilot project on the Limmat river, a robot is now being deployed with the aim of sorting the collected refuse.

Abfall aus Flüssen
Image credit: ETH Zürich


Students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) are seeking to solve the issue of marine pollution around the world. As part of the Autonomous River Cleanup initiative, the research group is initially looking for solutions to remove waste from rivers on an automated basis. “In rivers, the waste tends to be more concentrated and intact, which can make it easier to remove”, explains Fidel Esquivel, ETH student and founding member of initiative, in a press release issued by the university.

In recent years, the students participating in the project have analyzed several solutions in lab settings. These are now to be trialed in real-life scenarios for the first time. For this, a test facility has been installed on the Limmat river alongside Platzspitz park in Zurich.

Using cameras placed on the Walchebrücke, a bridge across the Limmat in central Zurich, the initial aim will be to assess the volume and composition of the waste. In order to collect the waste on the testing platform, the students will use a conveyor belt, following which a robotic arm fitted with a camera will separate the refuse by material. In so doing, biomass will be returned to the water with the aim of keeping any impact on the ecosystem to an absolute minimum. Over the longer term, the aim will be for the robot to sort the refuse by different types of plastic as well, so that this can then be recycled.

The Limmat pilot project will run until the end of August. It should show whether the students’ specially programmed deep learning algorithms are able to correctly recognize the objects. The students will additionally be aiming to further refine their system so that it operates in the most energy-efficient and intelligent manner possible.

The initiative is also being supported by various industrial partners. For technologies that prove to be effective, the students intend to develop custom solutions for various stakeholder groups.

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