Drones set to join Lake Michigan beach cleanup crews

A new kind of beach and water cleanup is coming to West Michigan: Drones. 
 
One of the beneficiaries will be the Muskegon Lakeshore, which is participating in the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup Program and will serve as home to the Pixie and BeBot drones.
 
The project “will strengthen stewardship of our precious waterways and majestic Pere Marquette Beach," says Muskegon Mayor Ken Johnson. "We're excited to see these innovative devices in action, and our community is grateful for the collaboration of Meijer, the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute (GVSU-AWRI) and the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) in advancing this eco-friendly initiative.”
 
Spearheaded by Meijer
 
Meijer is spearheading the launch of these innovative technologies as part of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup Program that aims to clean up Midwestern beaches and waterways in partnership with the CGLR.
 
"It is a privilege to live near the Great Lakes, which inherently comes with the responsibility to protect them," says Meijer President & CEO Rick Keyes in a statement announcing the Michigan-based retailer’s participation. 
 
"Contributing to the conservation of these invaluable waterways is important to the well-being of our ecosystems, economy and the communities we serve. Meijer has a strong history of environmental stewardship, and we're pleased to partner with the CGLR because the impact these initiatives will make will ultimately benefit generations to come."
 
Starting this month, Meijer and the CGLR will lead cleanup projects at busy beaches, marinas and waterways in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. This will be a partnership with community, state and environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners. 
 
Cleaning beach sand and lake water
 
The BeBot, a solar- and battery-powered drone, can clean 32,00 square feet of beach sand in an hour. It collects plastic litter and other waste — such as bottles, cans, food wrappers and cigarette butts — in a basket for disposal and recycling. 
 
The BeBot rakes through the sand without altering the beach environment. 
 
The Pixie drone is for water cleanup and can collect up to 200 pounds of material per trip. It will be used to navigate through marinas and other waterways to collect plastic litter and other waste debris floating on the surface of the water. The Pixie will also gather water data, including temperature, pH levels, salinity, turbidity and dissolved oxygen.
 
$1M Meijer donation
 
The Pixie and BeBot drones were funded by a $1 million donation Meijer made to the charitable arm of the CGLR in the United States (the CGLR Foundation) earlier this year. The deployment of these devices is part of the expansion of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup Program's plastic capture and recovery effort, an initiative that was started in 2020 by the CGLR and Pollution Probe.
 The Pixie drone will pick up trash along Muskegon beaches.
Representatives from the GVSU-AWRI operate the equipment along the Muskegon Lakeshore and handle the collected materials once they are collected. 
 
Pere Marquette is one of the first beaches to be cleaned by BeBot on Tuesday and Friday mornings. It cleans a segment of the beach, which takes about 30 minutes to complete. The BeBot is steered via a remote device that’s captained by Eric Hecox and Ossian Foley, who are onsite while the BeBot works. 
 
When the BeBot is finished, the waste stream is sorted and characterized by Jamie Cross, the Lead Science Instructor for the vessel W.G. Jackson, and Cate Garretson, a local high school student. The rocks and dreissenid mussels (zebra and quagga mussels) are removed and returned to the beach setting. 
 
Reusing waste
 
Cross and his team are currently working with Goodwill Industries of West Michigan to recycle the wood chips and perhaps the plastic, to be reused for wood products and HydroBlox, respectively.
 
“At this time, we are mainly focusing on using the BeBot as we get a handle on the process for running it and sorting what it picks up,” says Cross. “When we go out, our goal at this time is to collect a 32-gallon container of beach debris with the BeBot. That material contains litter items, rocks, woody debris and shells. It takes about four hours to sort out the litter items from the large container. From there, we sort through the litter items to categorize them. That takes another one to one-and-a-half hours. Our focus is to remove the plastic items found within the litter items.”
 
This is vital to the beaches and water that surround Michigan, environmentalists say.
 
“Plastics production in general, and microplastics specifically, has grown dramatically in the past few decades, and the vast majority of these items are finding their way into landfills or the environment instead of being reused or recycled — they are quickly becoming a major environmental concern,” says Dr. Alan Steinman, the Allen and Helen Hunting Research Professor at the Annis Water Resources Institute and Professor of Water Resources at GVSU. “We need people to become better educated about the issues associated with single-use plastics, and there also needs to be pressure applied to large plastics manufacturers to either reduce their production or develop new polymers that are easier to break down into benign products.”
 
‘Getting to the smaller items’
 
While locations to use the Pixie drone are still being identified, all a beach or water body needs is owner permission before a drone is used.  
 
“The city of Muskegon does a great job cleaning our beaches, and we have local groups of volunteers that clean our beaches as part of a region-wide Adopt-a-Beach program,” says Cross. “I see the BeBot's role as getting to the smaller items that the city's equipment and volunteers have a hard time removing. The pieces the BeBot picks up are pretty small, often fragments of larger items. It will be interesting to see what kind of difference the robots make in removing plastic from our beaches and waterways.”
 
Meijer is also working on numerous store-level projects that impact the Great Lakes, including one with the CGLR to install gutter bin stormwater filtration systems at select Meijer supercenters. The gutter bins will capture and prevent trash, debris, microplastics and other harmful stormwater pollutants from flowing into nearby waterways. Each bin captures hundreds of pounds of pollution per year.
Tiny pieces of trash picked up from a beach by the Bebot drone.
The retailer is in the midst of additional stormwater projects to retrofit the parking lots at its Traverse City and Benton Harbor supercenters with green infrastructure and is continuing its partnership with the Alliance for the Great Lakes on a handful of beach cleanup efforts.

Watch video of the BeBot and Pixie Drone in action here.

Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.