University deploys satellites, IoT to fight North Sea plastic pollution

University deploys satellites, IoT to fight North Sea plastic pollution

Researchers at the University of Oldenburg in Germany are using satellite communications to combat the growing problem of plastic pollution in the North Sea.

A report in Science magazine estimates that there are 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste on the planet, with waste increasingly polluting our oceans, damaging marine life, and entering the food chain. An estimated eight million tonnes enters the oceans every year, according to a report from the World Economic Forum.

Mobile satellite voice and data services provider Globalstar has provided its SPOT Trace and communications technologies to help the team study the movement of floating plastic in the North Sea. In particular, researchers from the University’s Institute of Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment are trying to get a clear picture of the waste’s drift patterns.


The team has embedded low-cost satellite trackers in floating buoys, which provide a wealth of information on the plastic’s movements on the surface.

Each of the buoys is fitted with a 7×5 cm SPOT Trace device, which includes an integrated GPS receiver, simplex transponder, and motion sensor. This Internet of Things (IoT) solution allows researchers to track drift movements using the Globalstar LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) satellite constellation.

Modelling tools

The University’s 3D computer simulations and modelling tools use the SPOT Trace data to help the team both understand and predict surface drift behaviour, as well as how debris travels in the water column and on the sea floor.

Researchers said that one of the most revealing discoveries has been the huge effect of wind, with some buoys beaching after as little as one month, having travelled up to 700 miles.

“It is clear that the influence of the power of the wind on the movement of floating particles in the North Sea is greater than we anticipated,” said PhD student Jens Meyerjürgens.

“Seventy-five percent of the debris that washes ashore on our islands is plastic, mostly from fishing activity,” added Mathias Heckroth, managing director of Mellumrat eV. The NGO is dedicated to conservation and scientific research on the uninhabited island of Mellum, one of the 32 Frisian Islands in the North Sea being studied by the University of Oldenburg team.

Mellum is situated in the intertidal Wadden Sea region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site protecting more than 10,000 species of plants and animals, where up to 12 million migrating birds spend time each year.

“The study is playing an important role in helping to identify the source of the plastic litter. It is also showing unexpected drift movement; we usually have a west-to-east drift, but sometimes tracking the buoys reveals a drift in the opposite direction, and we are studying why,” added Heckroth.

The research team is also helping authorities to establish new rules and regulations to both people and businesses to pollute less. “A key role of the University’s research is to help bring all stakeholders together, to give them compelling evidence, and to raise awareness of this huge problem,” said Heckroth.

Just as important, this new ability to predict the movement of pollutants as they drift and wash ashore can help clean-up operations to be more targeted and efficient.

“We very much hope this study inspires others and that our methodology can become a template for use by fellow research institutions elsewhere in the world,” said the University’s Meyerjürgens.

Internet of Business says

This inspiring project reveals how sensors, IoT technology, satellite communications, and analytics can gather and investigate large amounts of data about environmental problems, and not only provide useful information, but also help predict where solutions can best be applied.

Similar systems are being deployed in the air, as well as at sea, to help monitor extreme weather conditions, or clouds of pollution. For example, the MAVIS project, developed by the UK’s Southampton University, releases disposable paper drones at high altitude in order to track the movement of storms.

Read more: Oil spill detection enhanced by Norwegian IoT partnership