Urban Rivers, a Chicago-based environmental nonprofit, plans to dispatch a remote-controlled, trash-collecting robot. Eventually, they hope to have the general public controlling the vessel through their website.
(TNS) — People strolling along the Chicago River this summer might spot an unfamiliar watercraft navigating the North Branch.
In an effort to attack the river’s pollution, Urban Rivers, a Chicago-based environmental nonprofit, plans to dispatch a remote-controlled, trash-collecting robot — Trashbot — near Goose Island, where the group also is helping create wildlife habitat.
Urban Rivers aims to have Trashbot linked to a website that allows anyone to access and operate it remotely through a smartphone or computer.
“We’re hoping people play it like a video game and clean up trash,” said Nick Wesley, co-founder of Urban Rivers. “Everyone has latched on and we think this is a way everyone can engage the river.”
The nonprofit collaborated with software developers so people will be able to control the floating apparatus in real time, Wesley said. The robot’s range will initially be limited to the “Wild Mile” section of the river along Goose Island, where Urban Rivers has been working with other groups to create wildlife habitat and recreational areas.
Urban Rivers took Trashbot out for its first remote-controlled test run Wednesday morning in the North Branch Canal, east of Goose Island near Blackhawk Street, near where the group has been restoring habitat. A small team took a few hours assembling and hard-wiring the robot before putting it in the river. The robot was able to maneuver through the water for a few minutes before a minor malfunction.
Despite the technological hiccup, Wesley declared the test run a success. “We proved a really important piece, that we could control it remotely while on the river,” he said.
The trash robot is an extension of Urban Rivers’ mission to transform city rivers into wildlife sanctuaries, Wesley said.
Urban Rivers developed the robot with money from a $5,000 Kickstarter campaign and a $10,000 grant from the Ozinga Foundation, Wesley said.
Trashbot was born of necessity.
After Urban Rivers installed the first floating gardens in June 2017, the organization noticed an abundance of trash polluting the river, Wesley said. Debris ran the gamut, including empty water and soda bottles, chips bags, plastic bags, cups and other trash and debris.
First volunteers tried picking the trash up by hand. Then people were sent out in kayaks to clean up. But more trash always accumulated.
“We realized we needed a way to collect trash all the time,” Wesley said. And the idea of Trashbot was born.
There are some concerns about granting random people access to the robot, Wesley said, adding that Urban Rivers will adapt and problem-solve as the issues arise.
“There’s always a chance somebody takes advantage of it,” Wesley said. “But that isn’t a good enough reason not to create something cool and unique.”
Brian Levy, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District engineer, said anyone operating a device in the river should be aware of increased boat traffic including water taxis, kayaks and canoes.
However, Levy said, he’s “open to any sorts of improvements” to increase the Chicago River’s water quality.
Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, said Trashbot was a “terrific idea” that should accomplish two goals.
First, it will help collect river trash, which visibly pollutes the river and poses a threat to wildlife.
Second, it will help increase awareness because it’s a “fun and inventive” method to clean up the river.
“The thought was if anyone can control it … it could unify people to work towards a common goal,” Wesley said.
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