Microplastic pollution is everywhere, but its size — less than five millimeters in length — makes the threat almost invisible to the naked eye. That’s why Cambridge-based research and development lab Draper has teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency and design firm Sprout Studios to create the Draper Drone, a concept for an autonomous underwater vehicle that implements Draper’s portable microplastics sensor. Engineered to rapidly count, measure the size of and determine the material makeup of microplastics in real-time, the Draper Drone could help create a global microplastics database for analyzing pollution trends, identifying sources and informing possible solutions to the problem.

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a small white, black and green robot going up to a water-bound docking station underwater

Microplastics are created in one of two main ways: the breakdown of larger plastic debris, or from industries that make small plastic particles such as microfibers in clothing and microbeads. These tiny particles, which readily absorb toxins such as DDT and flame retardants, are often ingested by marine life and can potentially have negative effects on human health through the food chain.

a small white, black and green robot with the word Draper on it, turned to the side

To provide an easier and more cost-effective way of analyzing microplastic risks and trends, Draper teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency to create an affordable portable sensor to measure microplastics in real-time. The team is also developing the Plastic Particle Pollution Index, a standardized microplastics identification system for logging environmental samples. The prototype sensor has been tested in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the technology is expected to be available via open-sourcing. 

Related: Microplastics accelerate cell death at 3 times the normal rate, study says

an underwater small white, black and green robot with the word Draper on it, from the front. in the background is another drone and docking station

Taking the sensor technology a step further, Draper asked Sprout to help design the Draper Drone, an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with the microplastics sensor that could independently scan the top nine meters of the water for microplastics. The conceptual battery-powered drone would be paired with a self-docking, wind-powered charging buoy. The project was recently recognized in the 2019 TIME Best Invention List.

+ Draper

Images via Sprout Studios