Flying drones may have started out as a hobby for Nick Wagner, a graduate of Mifflinburg Area High School, but his old hobby has evolved into a method of analyzing the levels of water pollution.
Wagner and his company, Foresight Drones, were hired by the nonprofit Ocean Cleanup to map the makeup of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from July to September.
âWe would start [the drone] from the top of the ship and then flying it for over an hour, an hour and a half and taking a series of photos pointing straight down from the surface of the ocean, âWagner said. “And then we take these pictures … run them through an artificial intelligence algorithm that detects the debris floating on the surface of the ocean.”
The evidence would allow a better understanding of the concentration and composition of the debris, Wagner said.
“The long-term goal is that this drone data could be used to then guide this plastic collection system to the hotspots with the highest density to increase the efficiency of the entire process,” said Wagner.
The project primarily focused on identifying megaplastics – pieces of plastic that are more than half a meter or larger in a diagonal measurement – as they can degrade into microplastics over time. Once this process is complete, it becomes much more difficult to remove the debris from the ocean.
Matt Pickett is the founder and CEO of Oceans Unmanned, an organization dedicated to facilitating the use of unmanned technology for environmental research purposes.
Pickett said the project was successful in mapping a large area of ââthe debris.
âIn a sense, we’ve proven that the technology works,â Pickett said. “The AI ââsoftware works and it’s a viable way of measuring it.”
Wagner said there is a huge misunderstanding associated with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s not quite the plastic ceiling that some people believe he said is more like “soup”, with a large area but a low density.
“The plastic concentrations inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are up to 100 times higher than outside the vortex that creates this garbage patch,” said Wagner.
Despite great awareness of the patch, Wagner said that not much research had been done on the composition of the debris. He said that while experts agree that the concentration is there, little data has been collected on what constitutes the concentration.
“There have been some aerial photographs of manned aircraft from some aircraft that have flown over and taken aerial photographs, but we were able to really advance that science with this mission and collect that data to understand the extent of the problem and the characteristics.” Of the floating debris there outside, âsaid Wagner.
Although Wagner now lives in Portland, Oregon, he was born in Lewisburg. He said that some of the trigonometry associated with the project reminded him of his lessons in Mifflinburg.
“I was proud of where I came from and proud of my hometown and my home school and the fact that I got the basic knowledge I needed to build a career and move forward on that path,” said Wagner.