Underwater robot helps find, remove trash from Rockland Harbor

The Rozalia Project, a nonprofit that cleans harbors and beaches, pulled a bicycle out of Rockland Harbor on Sunday. The nonprofit then invited the public onto its sailboat to watch its underwater robot fish around for trash underwater.
Courtesy of Kelsey Sirois
The Rozalia Project, a nonprofit that cleans harbors and beaches, pulled a bicycle out of Rockland Harbor on Sunday. The nonprofit then invited the public onto its sailboat to watch its underwater robot fish around for trash underwater.
Posted June 17, 2012, at 7:43 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — One large computer screen burned yellow while Rachael Miller flicked at a video game controller, making the blurry images shift.

“We have to head under the boat for some shade,” Miller said, moving the joystick, which controlled an underwater robot in Rockland Harbor on Sunday. “This is like Playstation, live.”

Soon the screen’s image got clearer and showed the ocean floor, freckled with urchins and shells.

Miller is the director of Rozalia Project, a nonprofit that takes trash off the ocean floor. Over the weekend, the project docked its 60-foot sailboat at the Rockland Public Landing, where it let its watermelon-sized robot roam around for trash.

On Sunday, Miller stayed behind the video controller. In front of her was the bright yellow screen that fed live video to the boat. Another screen showed a sonar picture of where the robot was and what objects were near it.

A rectangular blip appeared 33 feet from the robot, according to the sonar. Miller, sitting in the docked boat, decided to go for it.

“There it is,” she said. “I’m not allowed to pick up lobster traps because they still do belong to the fishermen.”

Miller poked around the trap anyway. The robot hovered over it.

“It looks like there is a hammer sitting on the trap. We can get that,” she said.

The robot’s crablike claws wrapped around the hammer’s handle. After moving a few inches, it slipped. Miller tried again and got a better grasp, but when the robot tried to pull the hammer up, it resisted.

“Oh, it’s attached,” Miller said.

She moved on and brought the robot back to the boat. After three years of roaming the ocean floor, Miller still loves it.

“You never know what you’ll find.”

Sitting on the dock on Sunday afternoon was a disintegrating bicycle, its spokes long gone and its chain — or what was left of its chain — rusted to its gears. The bike was pulled out of Rockland Harbor. The small robot hooked a line to the bike so the Rozalia Project interns could yank it onto the docks. Aside from the bike though, the nonprofit didn’t find much in the harbor. Miller said the currents likely pull out a lot of the trash.

In other harbors, beer cans and rubber bands for lobsters are ubiquitous.

“We pulled 12,000 pieces of trash out of Frenchboro,” Miller said.

The Rozalia Project’s boat, American Promise, is stationed in Kennebunk, but will travel from Maine to Rhode Island this summer. The weekend in Rockland was one of several educational days where the project invited the public on board to see what trash is in the harbor.

“We want to connect people to their underwater world,” Miller said. “Especially in Maine. The water is cold so they don’t often scuba dive to see this.”

That’s why Liz Wells of Waldoboro boarded the ship. Wells had read about other states using robots to clean up bodies of water and wanted to see how it worked.

“I’m the girl that does garbage cleanup. I volunteer to monitor Hungry Island. I kayak out there for trash,” she said. “I do trash walks to pick up bottles.”

“We need lots of you,” Miller said.

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