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Insights & Trends 11 min read

New litter pandemic? Not if drones can help it

New litter pandemic? Not if drones can help it

Lockdown measures are being lifted all over the world. The result? Heaps of refuse left in parks and streets.

Ellie Mackay, CEO and Founder of Ellipsis Earth, says gathering precise information about litter is not a simple task: “Trying to come up with solutions for it is like a doctor trying to treat a patient that they can't see."

Founded in 2019, Mackay leads a global network of scientific advisors and aerial pilots who are committed to mapping waste across the planet, helping to inspire initiatives and influence lasting environmental change.

Combining real-life data collection with what Mackay refers to as “slick high-tech" gives Ellipsis Earth an exact view into the amount, type, and location of garbage on the Earth's surface and in the water.

Currently, data about the amount and type of refuse is collected by hands-on scientific exploration, which provides subjective, biased, or inaccurate sample data and can also be dangerous, expensive, and slow. With many areas of the natural world remaining unreachable, it takes a lot of expense, time, and effort to collect information.

However, coming up with statistics or predictions via technology alone also has its downside. “Any mistake or bias in the sample data is massively extrapolated and expanded into the model results," Mackay explains. “It's full of human error, you have people in the labs coming up with automated predictions and computers that generate numbers. But they're not robust enough to make big legislative or economic decisions. So, what we do is combine the two methods."

Ellie Mackay, CEO and Founder of Ellipsis Earth researched the psychology of littering and found that after great stress, like a pandemic, people can regress to “childlike behaviors and lose a sense of community responsibility, they start to litter more – and we're seeing that now."


Why are we talking trash now? Because, as it turns out, a global pandemic results in more than tragedy and economic upheaval. Whether it's the outcome of not being able to visit friends and family, or a general lack of awareness due to long-term stress, people are littering more now than before COVID.

As a result, the UK is on a mission to prevent their public spaces from becoming dumpsters and they're turning to drones for help.

A clean sweep

During post-lockdown in the summer of 2020, a shocking amount of waste was strewn about in UK national parks. Consequently, British city councils in Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole (BCP) created an innovative pilot project called “Leave Only Footprints". The venture uses drones to combat another anticipated littering surge as COVID rules ease in BCP this year.

Collecting data, which is processed through AI intelligence, drones help inform the government of garbage type and position, the location of trash bins, and their efficacy. This data can help eliminate litter while simultaneously working to change human habits via increased knowledge and awareness.

This short video demonstrates CEO and Founder of Ellipsis Earth, Ellie Mackay, flying a drone to capture aerial imagery over a beach in the UK.

Video courtesy of Ellipsis Earth.

“Leave Only Footprints" is a partnership between environmental non-profit Hubbub, Ellipsis Earth, and UK city councils. Fast-food tycoon McDonald's has joined in too. While it might be surprising to hear that the burger and fries giant is participating in such a project Mackay counters: “McDonald's gets criticized a lot... they produce a lot of trash but not as much as subjective studies show. And, they also participate in a lot of positive impact projects. They have volunteers that go into national parks to carry out cleaning, and along the road and so on," revealed Mackay. “They have the network, influence on their consumers, and the money to be able to drive changes. We absolutely should be working in partnership with the big brands."

“We are thrilled to be funding this truly innovative campaign, along with some of our key packaging and drinks suppliers... this intervention is a real step-change allowing us to leverage technology and data to not only make clearing litter more impactful but to help improve behavior and encourage those people who do litter to act more responsibly," – Helen McFarlane, Senior Sustainability Consultant for McDonald's told HERE360


Ellipsis Earth uses smart technology including aerial imaging, map data, automated identification, image recognition, and AI in combination with photography. “We go out and actually capture images of the ground, the streets, the beaches, and the oceans in real life, and then process them very rapidly, very accurately. We have a huge data set, which is statistically very relevant and representative of each region," said Mackay.

The benefit of combining human and tech-based approaches is that it creates an objective-as-possible viewpoint. Ellipsis Earth can make more standardized comparisons of litter in diverse regions via a machine calculated score: “We can literally compare a beach in Australia, a river in Scotland, a city in America, and look at the density or the amount of litter for each one," concluded Mackay.

“We can identify forty-seven different categories of trash, how long they have been there and the movement... so that people can make more informed decisions, so that the legislation is targeted and specific." — Ellipsis Earth Founder and CEO, Ellie Mackay.

Video courtesy of Ellipsis Earth.

In March, Ellipsis Earth started capturing data in the BCP region, using lightweight commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drones. Mackay elaborates: “We use drones for speed and efficiency, but also, smartphones, fixed cameras, and action-oriented cameras installed on cars, bikes, or even scooters. We can also harness any vehicle that's doing the same route every day like school buses or postal workers. Or we can walk and take photos. But instead of having to manually tag the type of trash and the location, it's automatically tagged in our backend."

Their software can distinguish between plastic bottles, fishing nets, bottle caps, cigarette butts, or toothbrushes and inform data analysts of the type, location, and time of its disposal.

"A lot of academic studies are saying there are a billion facemasks in the ocean. That's just simply not true," explained the CEO and Founder of Ellipsis Earth, Ellie Mackay, “Our data shows the reality, not an overestimate."

Image credit: Ellipsis Earth.

Ellipsis Earth then uses the latitude/longitude of the image, and the digital location of the item within the image, to plot litter maps and garbage “hotspots" to aid in cleanup strategies. “We have three or four different kinds of mapping software that we use, one just using GPS and GIS to locate the item in physical space. Then we can cross-reference that with other mapping intelligence. For example, what the topography, wind speed, and erosion rates are... to start building predictive layers of how long a bottle is likely to stay on the beach," Mackay shares.

They're also able to track garbage as it moves by overlaying custom map imagery or repeating image surveys, tracking items per hour, per day, or per week. As COVID restrictions continue to ease, the image surveys in the BCP region will be repeated.

The image on the left displays litter (yellow and green dots) before a strategized bin placement plan. The image on the right shows the results.

Image credit: Ellipsis Earth.

Sea change

If there's one thing Ellipsis Earth can show us it's that knowledge is power. For example, if there's one ton of trash on a beach and a city sends in a truck to clean up the mess, one ton of crab traps is different than one ton of take-out containers in terms of the solution it warrants.

To clean up fishing waste, regulations with the industry are needed, in addition to new trade-specific recycling technologies. For more individual recycling needs, like in the case of “Leave Only Footprints", Mackay says: “We need to put more trash cans on the beach. We need to have better signage and information for people littering. It's not just about knowing how much trash – it's about knowing the breakdown of the proportions. Things like, how long litter stays on the beach. The following week there might be ten times more or, maybe [the same amount] just sits there for months at a time," shared Mackay.

There's a lot of data around how people move for the city, but there's no data on how trash moves through the city." – CEO and Founder of Ellipsis Earth, Ellie Mackay.

Video courtesy of Ellipsis Earth.

Once refuse has been mapped, tracked, and analyzed, Ellipsis Earth and BCP city councils can compare one region's trash patterns to another, to find out if one solution will work in another location, in addition to the effectiveness of a policy. Mackay says their technology helps to “match the diagnosis and the treatment by creating a data set that we can look at."

In the summer of 2020 in Sorrento Italy, reported that a similar project, also led by Ellipsis Earth, reduced litter by forty-five percent, and cigarette butt waste by sixty-nine percent.

“It's to show the reality and the truth. In science, we don't start with the conclusion and work backward, we go out and see what the data says," stated CEO and Founder of Ellipsis Earth, Ellie Mackay.

Image credit: Ellipsis Earth.

While “Leave Only Footprints" is focused on helping cities change individual habits and improve waste removal plans, Ellipsis Earth's tech can help governments make more suitable waste regulations long term. “Once companies have to bear the burden of an item from its sale through to the end of its life, there's going to be a huge incentive for companies to understand the data of where the trash is going and... what proportion of the city's litter is theirs," says Mackay.

Until then, governments are dolling out blanket fines that could create more reluctance than motivation to take responsibility for trash. With the help of drones, location intelligence, and real-time and historic map data, companies can get to know their litter habits and gain a sense of accountability. These changes and policies can also be supported via cost-savings scenarios. In 2020, Statista reported that the United States spent US$9.34 billion on waste collection and disposal.

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Jasmine Reimer

Jasmine Reimer

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