Marine litter is a global threat to ecosystems and an area where often only cutting-edge technology can provide significant solutions. In this field, the developments now also have a Greek color since a Greek flag was raised when the winners of the CASSINI competition were announced during the European Space Week organized this year in Seville, Spain.

Executives had the outstanding distinction of a Greek start-up that cleans the coasts from plastics with dronesa prize that was even accompanied by one million euros.

“It is an award that proves that the knowledge produced in Greek higher education institutions is not only top-notch, but can be useful in a real environment. For us, this was a very special moment when the efforts of many years came to be rewarded”, said the associate professor of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Biosciences of the University of the Aegean, director of the Group, speaking to the APE-MPE radio station, “Agency 104.9 FM” of Marine Remote Sensing, and co-founder of SciDrones, Konstantinos Topouzelis.

In the highest position is the Greek SciDrones

The Greek spin-off of the University of the Aegean called SciDrones (s.s Scientific Drones) was among the three winners of the CASSINI competition which came with a prize money of one million euros and is organized by the EU Space Program Agency (EUSPA) and the European Commission. CASSINI is the European Commission’s initiative to support entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs developing innovative applications that leverage data from the EU Space Program and specifically from the Galileo/EGNOS and Copernicus satellite systems.

The objectives of this call were to stimulate the development of innovative solutions using EU space program data, to support the prevention of ocean pollution and to help solve problems related to the detection, monitoring and removal of plastic litter in rivers, coasts and coastal zones, attract innovative solutions, mobilize private investment and create solutions close to the market. The competition aimed to create a new ecosystem of entrepreneurs while all proposed solutions had to be close to the market and able to prove their effectiveness in a demonstration in a real environment. “We are talking about solutions that had to prove that they have the ability to contribute to the decontamination of the marine environment, to work against plastic pollution, while in our case there is also a very good relationship with the service that gives the Blue Flags which would also like to know if there is plastic pollution on the beaches or not”, explained Mr. Topouzelis.

“The three awarded companies must relate satellite data from Copernicus with whatever data they have in the field so that they can identify plastic pollution and then lead to the decontamination of the areas,” explained Mr. Topouzelis who described how the Greek company based on the research in the field of the team of the University of the Aegean managed to create a fully automated application. “We are talking about the detection of pollution on the coasts using Unmanned Aerial Systems (drones) as well as Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology. We have the ability for anyone on the planet to be able to fly a drone with a protocol that we will provide, and then put the data into our system and in a very short time, see where the trash is on the beaches, categorized into seven different categories, plastic, metal and others, as well as having the additional information about how confident we are about what we are doing as a result of the whole detection process.”

Top technological readiness for the Made in Hellas system

“With this system we can actually map the plastic pollution on the coasts very quickly and over a very large area”, emphasized Ms. Topouzelis, emphasizing how the SciDrones system has the additional advantage of recording marine litter in hard-to-reach areas areas where it is not particularly easy to get to a beach. After a rigorous review process and a demanding demonstration requirement where applicants had to demonstrate the effectiveness of their solution in real-world conditions, the European Commission together with the EU Space Program Agency (EUSPA) announced the winners during the European Space Week 2023 in Seville and thus the Greek effort, thanks to its effectiveness, was in the top award position. An efficiency that came after multiple field tests and considerable scope of cooperation. “There are difficulties in understanding how much waste is near the coasts. Our system has been tested on a wide scale, we have over 80 kilometers of coastline under test and it has also been used in many countries abroad, including Portugal, Ghana, Japan. It is therefore a very mature system that even has a top technological readiness, the so-called Level 9, an element that contributed to us winning the award”, explained the Greek director of the Marine Remote Sensing Team of the University of the Aegean.

Scidrones using an innovative combination of Copernicus data with high-resolution drone imagery and advanced AI algorithms developed the CMLO (Coastal Marine Litter Observatory) application that automatically detects litter on the coasts. CMLO categorizes them into seven different categories, differentiates them from other sources of natural debris such as twigs and algae and creates maps of areas containing a high density of litter so local authorities can use the app to guide their clean-up operations, allocating resources in those beaches and environments that are particularly burdened with waste and especially with plastics. “This work is also the result of a long collaboration with various agencies and I must point out that we would not have succeeded without the help of the Athanassios K. Laskaridis Foundation, which cleans the seas and coasts in Greece with the ship “Tyfonas” it owns and thus collects and data from drones which we use to be able to make our system work well”, emphasized Mr. Topouzelis. The international Air Center Institute also contributed, as the Greek scientist said, to the collection of data around the world so that the SciDrones system could be tested and matured more.

Greece, sustainability and the European Union Agency for the Space Program (EUSPA)

CASSINI is a process of the European Union Agency for the Space Programme, the European EUSPA which is responsible for the safety accreditation of all elements of the EU Space Program undertaken for the EU and provides safe European satellite navigation services, promotes commercialization data and services Galileo, EGNOS and Copernicus, while also coordinating the upcoming EU governmental satellite communications program GOVSATCOM as well as the EU SST Front Desk, programs in which Greece aspires to have a significant role. EUSPA is part of the European Green Deal effort for a resilient Europe. “The whole effort of Europe ‘matches’ our own efforts. Those burdened with waste is the goal of the EU to dispose of them to the maximum extent possible”, emphasized the associate professor of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Biosciences of the University of the Aegean.

As far as our country is concerned, the specific system that was awarded by EUSPA has many different functions and “is adapted according to who uses it, for example a hotel that wants its coasts clean, an island that wants the same, a municipality who wants to know how to keep his beaches clean and direct his forces” while with the CMLO and an entire country he will have it in operation and will present to the United Nations the information on sustainable development indicators as private individuals will be able to do who want to prove the cleanliness of their coasts”, Mr. Topouzelis explained when asked about the range of uses of the Greek technology system.