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Eye in the sky mapping of plastic soup

The Netherlands – The Ocean Cleanup project led by 22-year-old Dutch engineer Boyan Slat is to conduct a series of aerial expeditions to accurately quantify the ocean’€™s biggest and most harmful form of debris – discarded fishing gear, called ghost nets. According to Slat, the reconnaissance flights are ‘the last remaining piece of our puzzle’ to arrive at an understanding of how much ocean plastic there is to remove.

‘In order to be able to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is essential to understand its dimensions,’ argues Slat, who has gained a significant following in his mission to recover marine plastics for recycling.

The young pioneer asserts that acquisition of such comprehensive data will enable him to determine everything from the exact design of clean-up systems and the logistics of hauling plastic back to shore, to methods for recycling the plastics and the economics of the clean-up process.

Last year, Slat launched the Mega Expedition whereby a fleet of around 30 vessels produced the first high-resolution map of the infamous ‘plastic soup’ zone, situated halfway between Hawaii and the US state of California.

Mega Expedition

‘During the Mega Expedition, we used very large nets also to be able to measure larger pieces of plastic,’ he explains. ‘This was successful for debris of up to about a metre in size, but we know ocean garbage can be much larger than that.’ Hence the need for an Aerial Expedition, he adds.

The aim of aerial reconnaissance is to accurately measure the biggest and most harmful debris in the ocean. ‘It will be the first-ever aerial survey of an ocean garbage patch,’ says Slat. ‘The Aerial Expedition’s results will be combined with the data we collected on the Mega Expedition, resulting in a study we expect to publish in early 2017.’

Hercules flying high

The C-130 Hercules aircraft, named Ocean Force One, has been selected for the special flight. The aircraft will carry a crew of 10 researchers, three sensor technicians and seven navigation personnel, and will fly at a low speed (140 knots) and a low altitude (400 metres).

The area will be mapped using state-of-the-art infrared and 3-D sensors, while experienced observers – including the pilots and navigators – will scour the ocean surface from various positions in the aircraft, including through open paratrooper doors.

The pilot of his much-discussed clean-up technology is scheduled to be deployed next year, Slat has revealed.

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