Simulating robotic biomass collection

Sometimes it is not possible to the real-world evaluation of robotics solutions. This can be due to time, economy or in our case – the weather. In order to mitigate this, a virtual environment representing a test site was programmed in Unity which is a cross-platform game engine developed by Unity Technologies. Simulation is becoming an increasingly important part of robotic application development and validating applications in simulation before deploying to the robot can shorten iteration time by revealing potential issues early. Although the simulated environment in this case is a simplified model of the real world, it can be used to compare the performance of different autonomous navigation methods.

The model of the harbor was based on a drone photo which constituted the model and the underlaying plane of the simulation environment.

The model consisted of the following objects:

  • A 3D model of a WasteShark provided by RanMarine
  • Models of biomass
  • 3D models of boats
  • 3D models of piers surrounding the harbor and boat walks
  • Virtual waypoints for navigation purpose

WasteShark. The WasteShark was modelled using a 3D CAD-model of the WasteShark-platform which was provided by RanMarine. The steering behavior was modelled to resemble the real platform, making is able to move forwards and backwards while rotating around its own axis.

Collection of algae was simulated by using Unity built-in collision detection. When the WasteShark collided with biomass, this counted as a collection of the biomass. This only happened, when the WasteShark was moving forward representing the opening of the platform which is only at one side.

The size of the WasteShark was scaled to represent the corresponding size in the harbor, based on the drone-photo. The speed of the vessel however was arbitrary, as only comparison between different navigation plans (not the absolute values) are of primary interest here.

First test at Fakse Ladeplads

The WasteShark has been tested at Fakse Ladeplads in South Zealand at two locations; inside the port and at the corresponding beach. The temperature was between 10-12 degrees, with wind between from 6-8 m/s from south/southwest.

Test at the beach. At Fakse Ladeplads, a lot of algae was found at the beach and in the water around the structures. There is major odor nuisance, caused by algae which is mostly eel grass and beach wrack. Initially the drone was tested using manual control at the beach site. Although we did manage to sail a short tour, the test at the beach had to be aborted after approximate 5 minutes as the wind and current was too strong for the WasteShark to handle. Also, algae got stock in the propellers, leaving the drone with much less thrust. No algae were successfully collected in this test.

Test in the port. After the initial test at the beach, the drone was transport to the nearby port. The port is full of debris, which seems to be mostly eelgrass. In this test, we sailed 3 rounds in the harbor with the drone using remote control. The total sailing time was approximate 2 hours. The Waste Shark proved successful in picking up seaweed from the harbor area, but in many cases also loses the seaweed again. This in particular happens when thee drones sails in reverse, which can be necessary for navigation purposes. In general, it turns out the be fairly difficult to do the navigation tasks related for picking up the algae due to wind and current.

Beach wrack at Fakse Ladeplads

Evaluation of test sites

A number of test sites have been investigated and evaluated in this project, mainly in the regions of Langeland, South Zealand including Møn, Skive, Odsherred, and Aarhus. These areas historically have had issues dealing with macro algae. For all sites we have been in dialogue with local authorities (the local municipalities) in order to get an understanding of the size of the issues with macro alga is in the area, and in order to get the relevant permissions.

The types of algae which are most commonly found in ports and beaches in Denmark are:

  • Eelgrass or seagrass (Zostera marina). Flowering plants (angiosperms) which grow in marine environments. There are about 60 species of fully marine seagrasses. Seagrass are technically not counted as an algae but is often mixed up with algae when washing up on the shores.
  • Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). Individual blades of Ulva can grow to be more than 400 mm (16 in) in size, but this occurs only when the plants are growing in sheltered areas.
  • Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus). Growing up to 35 inches (90 cm) tall, bladderwrack grows along the coastlines of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the North and Baltic Seas, and various waters in Canada and the United States.
  • Ectocarpus siliculosus which is filamentous brown alga.
  • Toothed wrack (Fucus serratus). This is a seaweed of the north Atlantic Ocean, known as toothed wrack or serrated wrack
  • Beach wrack. A term used to describe the accumulation of seaweed, seagrass and other specimens from the sea which collects near the shore and on beaches.

BrainBotics teaming up with related bio-projects in the Baltics

Søren Pallisgaard from BrainBotics presented the RAHIP-project at an international seminar about bio-projects in the Baltic Region in Malmö, Sweden.

The seminar was arranged by Energikontoret Skåne as a part of the Greater BIO project. The goal of the Greater BIO project is to increase the collection and use of biomass, increase the production of biogas from biomass and promote biodiversity. For more information:

Søren Pallisgaard from BrainBotics presented the RAHIP-project, which is about automated collection of algae and seaweed using robot technology. The main advantages of our approach are:

  • An increase in the economic value of the biomass collected
  • A lowering of the required initial investment in machinery
  • A less invasive collection method, preserving beach areas better
  • Access to more restricted coastal zones and spaces
  • A lowering of operating costs due to our robot operating autonomously
  • A CO2 neutral alternative as our robot can be charged by renewable energy sources

In October, the platform will be tested in Skive Fjord in Northern Jutland, where the robot will be used to collect sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). In October and November, the robot will be tested for collecting sea grass (Zostera marina) in Odsherred and Møn. The result of the test will data about how much biomass can be collected using robot technology, and how well it performs in operating environment for extended use of time.

At the seminar, Jens Almqvist from KRINOVA gave a presentation about the project CONTRA. The goal of CONTRA is to create sustainable business opportunities when it comes to beach wrack. For more information:

Tyge Kjær from Roskilde University informed about the COASTAL Biogas project. The goal of this project is to remove nutrients from the Baltic Sea by digesting washed seaweed into biogas and then using the digestate as biofertilizer. For more information:

RAHIP is supported by the EU project RIMA (Robotics for Inspection and Maintenance), which is a funding scheme under the EU’s research program.

BrainBotics are using robot to harvest seaweed

Smelly piles of rotten seaweed and algae blooms are a growing problem in many parts of the world due to over-fertilization and climate change. New project will use robot technology to harvest and recycle the surplus of seaweed in a sustainable way.

In maritime environments with too much nitrogen and phosphorus, the extreme growth and surplus of seaweed and algae is a growing problem. All over the world, money is spent on collecting, handling and destroying the surplus of seaweed. However, seaweed has many useful properties and can be used as an energy source in biogas plants, as a fertilizer, for insulation and as a raw material in animal feed, in cosmetics or even as a healthy food for humans. Therefore, it makes good sense to collect and use it for something useful, and the global market value is estimated to be up to $ 10 billion. In addition, collecting seaweed can help reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus emitted in the oceans, and bring the marine environment into balance.

Over the next six months, the Dutch company RanMarine and Danish startup BrainBotics will collaborate on collecting seaweed along the Danish coastlines using the innovative drone WasteShark from RanMarine, which is a small autonomous vessel for waste collection in maritime environments.

Søren Pallisgaard from BrainBotics says “Surplus of seaweed and algae is a growing problem, but it is also a resource that we do not utilize. In recent years, robot technology has moved from being focused on industrial manufacturing, to being used as tool in solving a number of environmental problems. With this project, we want to show that technology can be used to remove and recycle surplus of seaweed in a sustainable way”

The initiative is supported by the EU project RIMA (Robotics for Inspection and Maintenance), which is a funding scheme under the EU’s research program.

Talk at Employment and Integration Administration in Copenhagen Municipality

Employees in the Employment and Integration Administration became more aware of digitisation and robot technology when robot and machine learning expert Søren Tranberg Hansen gave a presentation at Jobcenter Copenhagen. Søren brought the robot Pepper to demonstrate the limitations of the robots: Pepper can find answers to what he’s coded for, but if you ask him a question he’s not prepared for, you won’t get a word out of him. So the reality is far from the horror scenario that we know from the Terminator? The job centre already has good experience in the use of robotics. It’s not a physical robot like Pepper, though. Because in the autumn, the job centre was given ASTA, a programme that can quickly find relevant information in a case. This means that in the long term the job consultants can spend more time on the citizen and less time on the preparation. ASTA is only one initiative out of many in an ambitious digitisation strategy that will be implemented in management in the coming years.