An important opportunity is emerging to unite the tools of Artificial Intelligence and robotics with sustainable energy. Companies like Plasco Energy Group – which converts carbonaceous materials (plastics, municipal solid waste etc.) into energy – are growing in both capacity and influence. This marks the beginning of a trend in energy sustainability, being able to power our cities off of our own waste. Such a cradle-to-cradle (instead of the typical cradle-to-grave model of consumption) approach would solve both the issues of how we will produce clean sustainable energy into the future, and what will we do with our waste.

As a species we have altered the face of the planet. Our oceans are a testament to our reach, with plastics and garbage floating throughout the world’s oceans. Any person would be hard pressed to find a beach on this planet without a trace of plastic or garbage. This is, in every measurable sense, unsustainable. If there was a way to harvest that plastic in the ocean, waste to energy companies could use it to make energy. Municipal solid waste in landfills is too contaminated with soil layering and additional landfill fluids to submit those materials to waste to energy plants, however the plastic in the ocean is not: it is “free” fuel.

This is where AI and robotics enter, helping companies that create energy from our waste. Artificial Intelligence has come a long way and will fuel the biggest advances in robotics and computer technology going forward. To harvest the plastics, a group of robotic barges powered by photovoltaic/wind/wave power, could sail throughout the oceans gathering the large pieces of plastic. The AI on board would include algorithms that would be programmed to recognize garbage and capture it, as well as steer clear of ships, major shipping routes and marine life. It would “eat” the garbage and store it in a compartment, and it could be unloaded when it returns to the initial launch point.

Robotic barges collecting the garbage piece by piece are preferable to boats deploying nets and scooping up the garbage. This avoids the vast amount of by-catch and ecosystem damage that would be caused by large scale trolling for garbage. Also the long-term costs of manned boats with nets and fuel would be greater than that of a robotic fleet. Autonomous robotics with sophisticated AI could accomplish the task with little to no adverse effect to the surrounding environment; they could deliver the material to the waste to energy plants, and help clean up our oceans in the process. In a way, it is much like harvesting fossil fuels, except it is harvesting our own waste to power a new generation of energy plants.

Project lead: Gray Daniels, VP, Sustainable Solutions, (613) 315-0855