A remote-controlled robot named BeBot rolls over a patch of sand in Indian Shores during a cleanup demonstration on Thursday, July 14, 2022. BeBot is part of a campaign by Keep Pinellas Beautiful to raise awareness about debris left by humans that lurks under the beach surface and eventually winds up in the Gulf of Mexico. (Aya Diab/TNS)
By Chris Kuo, Tampa Bay TimesTribune News Service
A new solar-powered, beach-cleaning robot has arrived in Pinellas County, drawing attention to all the debris lurking just beneath the beach surface.
Overseen by Keep Pinellas Beautiful, BeBot will visit 14 locations this month, from Clearwater to St. Pete Beach. The remote-controlled robot collects small pieces of litter — cigarette butts, plastic straws, bottle caps, food wrappers and more.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of trash that we found. It’s astonishing,” said Patricia DePlasco, executive director of Keep Pinellas Beautiful, a nonprofit that focuses on environmental cleanup. “We look across the beach and we think we have a nice clean beach and we don’t realize what’s under that top layer of sand.”
DePlasco and a team of about 30 volunteers gathered Thursday at an Indian Shores beach to watch a BeBot demonstration.
The white robot, about the size of riding lawnmower, chirped as its large black treads rolled over the beach. A metal grate at the rear shook and vibrated, sifting through the sand and transferring larger particles of trash into a back compartment. After BeBot dumped its collection onto a blue tarp, some volunteers sorted the trash into labelled plastic tubes. Others fanned out over the beach to collect debris.
Developed by Poralu Marine, BeBot is fully electric, weighs more than 1,300 pounds and can clean up to 32,000 square feet in an hour — about the size of seven basketball courts. It was purchased for $68,000 by Surfing’s Evolution & Preservation Foundation and donated to Keep Florida Beautiful, the parent organization for Keep Pinellas Beautiful.
BeBot has been circulating among the various Keep Florida Beautiful chapters, with a stop in Brevard County last month and a visit to St. John’s County set for later this summer.
DePlasco doesn’t plan on acquiring more robots. BeBot’s main purpose is to raise awareness about the smaller pieces of trash that often go overlooked, not to replace human cleanups.
“We’re hoping that people will be more mindful and help us to keep Pinellas beautiful,” she said. “The BeBot is a really neat machine. It isn’t the end-all, be-all. But it’s a great conversation starter.”
In response to concerns from local and state officials, Keep Pinellas Beautiful has developed a set of standard operating procedures for BeBot, including provisions that the robot stays more than 10 feet away from marked sea turtle nests and digs only 2 inches deep, DePlasco said.
Keep Pinellas Beautiful also receives approval from local sea turtle nesting organizations and acquires permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection before operating.
Much of what the robot picks up contains plastic, which poses “one of the greatest threats” to the marine ecosystem, according to Hunter Miller, the Florida Senior Field representative for Oceana, an ocean advocacy group.
When single-use plastics find their way into the ocean, they can dissolve into microplastics, which work their way into every part of the marine food chain, harming a host of organisms, according to Shannon Gowans, a professor of marine science at Eckerd College.
One of the volunteers at Indian Shores, 29-year-old Miles Terrell, sifted through the sand with a trash picker and a large blue bucket.
The robot “is not going to replace the helpers in the community but it’s neat to see something that’s remote-controlled and run the perfect depth that it does,” Terrell said. “Just think, if you had a thousand of these out there, every beach would almost be spotless, you know?”