ESA title
Enabling & Support

A step forward in detecting plastic marine litter from space

01/07/2020 1358 views 29 likes
ESA / Enabling & Support / Preparing for the Future / Discovery and Preparation

Last year, we asked for your ideas to detect and track seaborne plastic litter using satellites. Based on these ideas, all submitted via ESA’s Open Space Innovation Platform, 26 innovative projects are kicking off this summer that will together better map the direction humanity should take to achieve this ambition.

Millions of tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year. It is one of the most pressing environmental problems and tackling the issue is gaining momentum at all levels, from political bodies to forward-thinking companies. Monitoring marine plastic from Earth’s surface is difficult as it is impossible to see much of the ocean at one time. Space provides a more promising vantage point, but the required technology is still in its infancy.

"Following the promising results of previous ESA studies, we were searching for novel ideas to detect and possibly measure plastic concentrations, improve our understanding of how litter is transported around the world, and consequently help identify plastic sources and sinks," explains ESA Engineer Paolo Corradi who led the hunt for ideas. "This call for ideas was the first of its kind to source a wide variety of ideas for monitoring marine litter from space."

Aware that experts in topics that could be applied to monitoring marine plastic from space are spread around the world, the aim was to bring them together in a bid to create a community that could efficiently kick-start this area of research.

Accumulations of marine litter in the Mediterranean Sea, from satellite imagery processed in a <a href=""><b>previous ESA project</b></a> related to marine litter
Accumulations of marine litter in the Mediterranean Sea, from satellite imagery processed in a previous ESA project related to marine litter

"The 26 best evaluated projects address different problems, solutions and approaches, from using existing remote sensing technology in novel applications, to exploring new technologies to monitor marine litter, through developing new data processing, modelling and experimental techniques including approaches based on artificial intelligence," continues Paolo.

"The projects also cover different geographical areas, including places like southeast Asia where the problem of marine litter is huge, and as well as oceans they touch upon rivers, seas and even land. The important factor is that every project has the potential to improve our ability to monitor floating plastic from space, and thus provide the data necessary to propose appropriate solutions."

These projects will solidify a passionate community that has begun to develop over the last couple of years, to the point where the field reaches the critical point at which it can sustain itself, where new research and activities start organically.

Floating debris off of the coast of Canada, with pins indicating different patches of debris, from satellite data processed in a <a href=""><b>previous ESA project</b></a> related to marine litter.
Floating debris off of the coast of Canada, with pins indicating different patches of debris, from satellite data processed in a previous ESA project related to marine litter.

"Although the projects cover a wide range of aspects, there are places where the different teams will cooperate and build upon each other's work. New networks and teams have formed during the 'idea discussion phase' and based on the contacts they made during the evaluation and implementation process."

During the idea discussion phase, anybody can discuss open ideas that were submitted under the call, and Paolo saw groups joining around single ideas.

"I can definitely see dots being connected," continues Paolo. "I think that there will be a possibility to progress with projects clustering into 'super-projects', where projects blend together by exchanging complementary knowledge and resources. We will also develop an open database to collect information and results from all of the projects, in the hope of boosting the international effort to tackle marine plastic."

Images of the 26 selected ideas
Images of the 26 selected ideas

The call for ideas was run by ESA's Discovery element through the Open Space Innovation Platform (OSIP), ESA's hub for sourcing brilliant ideas from academia, industry and the general public. As with all ESA Discovery calls for ideas, the implemented projects take the form of research studies, early technology development activities, or co-funded PhD or postdoc projects.

"This was one of the first calls for ideas to launch through OSIP, and it's fantastic to see how successful it was," concludes Leopold Summerer, Head of ESA's Advanced Concepts and Studies Office, responsible for OSIP. "OSIP has also shown its value as a tool to connect experts around challenging problems and form communities to really make progress in early areas of research."

The following selected projects have recently started

Early technology development activities

ML-OPSI: A simulator for marine litter observation from space

Argans, Airbus, University of Oldenburg

This project aims to specify, design and prototype a simulator to estimate the marine litter signal at the top of atmosphere from a set of bottom of atmosphere scenarios. By focusing on realistic case studies, the simulator will support the path towards a space mission dedicated to detecting marine litter.

AIR-SOS: Airborne & satellite observation strategies for marine litter monitoring

SkyFlox, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Höltken Solutions

This project aims to collect high-quality and high-resolution data on floating objects in coastal waters near the mouth of the River Elbe. It will use a seaplane on clear and still (low wind) days to collect data at the same time as the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites collect data of the same location. In this way, the project will assess and validate the ability of Sentinel-2 and developed algorithms to monitor floating plastic marine litter from space.

Plastic Litter Project: Detection and monitoring of artificial plastic targets with satellite imagery and UAV

University of Aegean, CNR-ISMAR, AS Proteas

By deploying well-characterised plastic structures and accumulations of plastic items at sea, this project will contribute to generating validation and calibration data to develop and assess algorithms for detecting and quantifying plastic marine litter. The project will use detectors onboard satellites as well as cameras on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

REACT: Crowdsourcing, Copernicus and hyperspectral satellite data for marine litter detection, quantification and tracking

Planetek Italia, National Technical University of Athens, ARPA Puglia

By fusing different types of satellite and in situ data, this project aims to develop a novel method to detect plastic litter at the shore or close to the shoreline, as well as offshore.

Research studies

WASP: Mapping windrows as proxy for marine litter monitoring from space

Argans, University of Cadiz, CNR-ISMAR

Litter windrows in the ocean are small-scale aggregations of floating litter, with lengths ranging from tens to hundreds of metres. They are generated by specific wind-triggered oceanic dynamics that create convergence zones. This study aims to construct a map of these windrows in the Mediterranean Sea, analyse their correlation to other drivers, and test the capability of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite to anticipate areas for potential environmental monitoring and cleaning action.

Hyperdrone: Development of spectroradiometric proxies of shoreline marine plastic debris for satellite validation using remotely piloted aircrafts

Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Scottish Association for Marine Science

Developing instruments and algorithms for satellite remote sensing of ocean plastic needs standardised global in situ observations. This project plans to develop a standardised indicator for in situ radiometric detection of plastic debris on the shoreline, with a view to being deployed globally on different platforms.

Global marine plastic database: A database collecting matched ground truth data and satellite images

isardSAT, GFZ Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, University of Versailles, Prototyp Stockholm AB

This project will create an inclusive labelled global database and platform of marine plastic data that includes satellite data as well as data from the ground. The database will be available via a website and an application.

Plastic waste and the Black Sea, monitoring litter at sea and on the land from Sentinel-2 data


This project will apply multispectral Sentinel-2 data to identify both floating rafts of marine litter and sites of unconsolidated waste on land. This will provide information on the sources and sinks of litter in the Black Sea.

Prediction of plastic hot-spots in coastal regions using satellite derived plastic detection, cleaning data and numerical simulations in a coupled system

Polytechnic University of Catalonia, DHI GRAS

By combining satellite data on hydrodynamic variables, light reflectance and water quality with regional coastal models, this project will develop a system focused on identifying plastic hotspots in coastal waters and on the shore.

Using deep learning methods for plastic litter detection from satellite remote sensor


The main objective of this project is to make it possible to automatically detect marine plastic litter patches in images from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite using state-of-the-art deep learning methods (a subset of machine learning in artificial intelligence).

The remaining 16 projects will start between July and September 2020, due to limitations in the execution of experimental activities imposed by COVID-19 restrictions.

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