AWRI-operated drones to clean up plastic on beaches, waterways

A drone floats on Lake Michigan collecting plastic and litter.
The Pixie Drone, an eco-friendly water drone, is seen near the W.G. Jackson research vessel on Aug. 23 at Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon. The BeBot and Pixie Drone, funded by Meijer, can collect plastic and litter from area beaches and lakes..
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

MUSKEGON — West Michigan beaches and waterways will see less plastic and litter, thanks to a $1 million donation by Meijer to the Council of the Great Lakes Region, which funded the purchase of two innovative drones harbored at the Annis Water Resources Institute. 

AWRI, Meijer and the CGLR showcased the drones — BeBot and Pixie Drone — to members of the media and curious onlookers on Aug. 23 at Pere Marquette Park. 

The drones’ function is to help contribute to the efforts of The Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup. Lora Shrake, senior program director for business and sustainability at the CGLR, estimated 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes annually. 

“This not only impacts Great Lakes wildlife, but also the 40 million Americans and Canadians that require the Great Lakes for their drinking water,” said Shrake. “Once collected, the litter is analyzed providing valuable data that allows us to understand the scale of the problem.”

Meijer’s donation to the CGLR’s charitable branch, the CGLR Foundation, provided the funding for four sets of the drones to be purchased and used at sites in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Al Steinman, the Allen and Helen Hunting Research Professor at the AWRI, said the drones will reside at the institute, according to a two-year agreement with the CGLR. 

Members of the media watch a drone float on Lake Michigan
Members of the media and community observe the Pixie Drone, an eco-friendly water drone, along Pere Marquette Beach. Grand Valley's Annis Water Resources Institute be responsible for the drone's maintenance and operation for two years.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
Professors look at a drone skimming along Lake Michigan.
Alan Steinman, left, talks with Eric Hecox, fleet captain at AWRI, about the Pixie Drone as it skims along Lake Michigan.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
A drone combs a beach for plastic and litter.
Gautier Peers, with Poralu Marine, left, uses a remote control to demonstrate the BeBot, an eco-friendly beach cleaning robot. The BeBot and Pixie Drone, funded by Meijer, will capture and clean up litter.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

“Meijer has given us so much latitude,” said Steinman. “They haven’t told us how much to use it, so It’s really up to us. Basically we’ll probably go out a couple times a week in the morning, and we’ll have a couple of public education events as well.”

Steinman said Tuesday’s event was the first time he got an up-close look at the drones.

“I want to see how the things work,” said Steinman.

The drones are electric powered and operated by remote control. BeBot combs beaches, collecting plastic and debris into a trailing receptacle at a rate of 32,000-square-feet per hour. 

The Pixie Drone can skim the water surface and can collect up to 200 pounds of plastic and debris per use. Pixie can also collect data on the water, such as temperature, pH levels, salinity and dissolved oxygen.

“This technology is really cool,” said Steinman. “AWRI is on Muskegon Lake, and I feel a particular ownership to this project and making sure we sustain the water quality of Muskegon Lake, Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes as a whole."


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.