Hong Kong start-up Clearbot set to revolutionise marine trash collection | South China Morning Post


The version of the Clearbot built at MakerBay by MakerBay team is featured in South China Morning Post today. Special thanks to Cesar Jung-Harada, Thomas Williams, Aurianne Ricquier, Chicky Bhavnani who spent a lot of time on this project.

Hong Kong start-up Clearbot set to revolutionise marine trash collection

Automated robot can detect, remove and analyse debris in a variety of water systemsWinner of HKTDC’s Start-Up Express began as a student project at HKU

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The staggering amount of plastic and other waste clogging the world’s oceans and waterways—including the equivalent of 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone—is one of the biggest crises of modern times. But so far most efforts to combat the problem have been relatively primitive, from excavators scooping up sludge to sampans dragging nets along a shoreline.

“We were basically studying why The Ocean Cleanup failed,” says Sidhant Gupta, reflecting on his final year as an engineering student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “And it seemed like a technical issue to us because they were trying to use two boats and put a giant boom behind them. But when you have a system that’s five or six kilometres long, it’s very easy to break and very difficult to fix. We took a different approach, which would not be to build bigger and bigger machines but to use a swarm system. Could we take a single entity and then replicate it a hundred times?”


Before developing the current fibreglass version, the Clearbot team assembled prototypes from readily available materials

So Gupta and his group of fellow HKU students set out to do just that. In May 2019, they travelled to Bali where the government and locals had been struggling to keep up with the overwhelming amount of trash turning up in its rivers and shorelines. There, they “hacked together” a radio-controlled robot using local materials and put it out to sea.

Soon the students found themselves collecting a far greater amount of trash than the existing method of clearing it by hand from surfboards and paddle boats, and within six months Hong Kong’s first AI-powered autonomous water trash collection robotics company was born. Among its many awards and accolades, Clearbot was chosen by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) for its 2020 Start-Up Express programme that assists local start-ups through capability building, mentoring sessions and marketing activities. This includes access to global trade shows, including last month’s CES, where the company attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which cited Clearbot as one of the show’s “weirdest and most wondrous gadgets”.


With its relatively small size and built-in sensors, Clearbot is able to detect and pick up waste more efficiently than a boat or excavator

Clearbot is certainly a far more advanced solution for clearing marine waste than existing methods as well as being 15 times cheaper and twice as efficient. Each fibreglass robot is equipped with a camera, sensors and sophisticated data collection system. It can run for up to four hours on autopilot, using GPS coordinates or the on-board sensors, or via remote control.

What makes Clearbot appealing to governments and large corporations, which are currently spending billions on clean-up efforts, is its affordability and accountability. “If you look at ocean clean-up anywhere, the two biggest costs are manpower and marine resources, which typically is a boat,” Gupta says. “Most contracts are given out for a day or a month, so you have the cost of labour—usually at least two people—and the cost to rent the boat. Our robot costs only about HK$40,000 to build and if we rent it out for the cost of one month’s minimum wage then it’s much cheaper and it can collect a much higher volume than a manual-based unit.”


Development plans for Clearbot include automated docking stations, reducing the need for additional manpower

Meanwhile, the robot’s AI model classifies each piece of trash that’s scooped up. Users are able to see what’s been collected and compare that to what percentage is recycled or sent to landfill. Gupta sees this as part of wider efforts to formalise the informal economy and a big step forward for the marine environment, which has thus far lagged behind in terms of automation and technology adoption.

Still in the start-up phase, Gupta’s team is far from completing its mission. They’re currently testing a conveyor belt system that will allow the robot to feed the trash onto another barge or vessel. Once the system is perfected and the prototype finalised, they hope to start production and release Clearbot into the world.


The Clearbot team carries out tests at a land-reclamation site off Shek Kwu Chau, south of Lantau Island in Hong Kong

“If there’s a waterway that’s emptying trash into the ocean, my wish would be that there’s a Clearbot at the end of it preventing and controlling that,” Gupta says, citing the fact that 90 per cent of plastic polluting the oceans comes from just 10 river systems. “In an ideal scenario, it would be so affordable and so easy to work with that a community in Indonesia can say, ‘Our water is dirty; we’ll put in the effort to get one of these machines and it can help us clean automatically’. That's the dream, to actually build out a system that at scale is able to control trash in most of the major rivers and urban canals in the world. And if we’re able to do that well, we can make at least a bit of difference in terms of all the stuff that’s emptying into the oceans.”

Start-up Express is organised by HKTDC and supported by Strategic Partner, AMTD Group. The programme targets start-ups with products or services suitable for mass consumer market, as well as with strong desire to enter the international market. Through a series of capability building, mentoring sessions and marketing activities, the programme aims to assist Hong Kong start-ups in building connection, exploring markets, seeking partners and enhancing brand awareness. For more details: please click here.