SA engineers pave way for automated detection of ocean pollution

A never-seen before ocean monitoring technology developed by the University of Cape Town’s electrical engineering faculty is soon to launch.

Using a combination of boats, sensors and satellites, the system is expected to collect data on ocean pollution. 

The pollutants and debris found in the ocean is a result of human activities. Despite global efforts to educate consumers and industries about the dangers of waste and other pollutants entering the ocean, tonnes of waste reach the sea every year. This presents health risks to both people and marine life.

South Africa discharges between 90 000 and 250 000 tonnes of rubbish into the ocean every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Project SMARTPOL, or Autonomous Network System With Specialised and Integrated Multi-sensor Technology for Dynamic Monitoring of Marine Pollution, is a three-year project funded by the European Commission. 

“As our partners include Turkey, Malta and South Africa, we will try to have pilots in these three places, so this will include the harbours near Cape Town,” said Professor Amit Kumar Mishra, who is leading the team.

Apart from the remote sensor boats, the team is also planning to work on radar satellites, which are better at detecting pollutants such as oil spills. 

“There are cases where people take waste oil on a yacht and just dump it in the ocean. They think that nobody is watching. With the remote sensor radar images, we can detect the oil streaks,” Mishra explained. 

The UCT team is fortunate to have two oceans on their doorstep — the Atlantic and the Indian oceans — making Cape Town an ideal place to use the new technology. 

Although monitoring of ocean pollution exists, none were automated until now. 

“Let’s say we see a blob from satellite data, and we think that blob is plastic pollution. How do you validate that? That is where SMARTPOL will help. We get ground truth data from the coastal monitoring, and with that we will be able to determine size and nature. From there we can build an artificial intelligence model. If we make models rigorous, in future, we should be able to rely on satellite data to identify some of the major pollution types.”

Mishra said the project will also pave the way to alert law enforcement agencies to infringements relating to waste and other dumping, but that will take some time.

“At some point, maybe in two years’ time, we will start interacting with legal authorities to see the legal framework that is feasible. Currently, we are just a group of engineers trying to solve a problem. If there is no action though, this is just a waste of time.” 

Last year the department of environment, forestry and fisheries launched an initiative called Source-to-Sea. It involves dozens of clean-ups by volunteers on embankments in several districts and is set to end next month. The six-month programme cost the public purse about R60-million, reflecting the weight of resources needed to prevent further marine pollution. 

To report any incident of pollution in the marine environment, and become a steward of ocean health, be it on a beach, an estuary or out to sea, the public is encouraged to contact [email protected]

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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