Australia’s CSIRO wields data and AI as sword and shield to protect the planet

Australia’s CSIRO wields data and AI as sword and shield to protect the planet

June 18, 2020
Press Release: Microsoft

A walk along a wide, deserted beach – no car, house, nor other person in sight. The southerly whips up the sand, needling against your leg. You glance down and nestled in the shells and seaweed is a blue clip, a shred of ribbon and the remains of a long-forgotten balloon

You may collect your ‘three for the sea’ every time you venture out for a walk, but plastic pollution remains a major global concern – it’s estimated that as much as 12 million tons of plastic finds its way into rivers and oceans each year, representing a huge threat to wildlife and the environment.

It’s one of the major challenges that Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, is seeking to address. It is using leading-edge technologies to interpret data collected during beach and ocean surveys along with videos of rivers and stormwater drains to identify and track garbage flows into waterways and inform intervention efforts, like placement of river rubbish traps and paid deposit schemes.

According to CSIRO principal research scientist, Dr Denise Hardesty, “This is some of the most exciting research I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. People care about the plastic pollution issue. It’s something that resonates with people whether it’s industry, governments, private citizens.”

The project is one of several being undertaken by CSIRO using artificial intelligence and state-of-the-art digital technologies as part of a new partnership with Microsoft which is intended to help address some of the most challenging issues facing the world today.

Dr Hardesty’s research is focused on tackling the spread of marine debris because it can pose navigation hazards, smother coral reefs, transport invasive species and negatively affect tourism. Marine debris also injures and kills wildlife, has the potential to transport chemical contaminants, and may pose a threat to human health.

By collecting data about the spread and concentration of plastic, Dr Hardesty and her fellow researchers are using machine learning and AI to analyze where the plastic might end up, and also what steps could be taken on land to reduce the likelihood of plastic entering waterways and oceans.

“Applying Microsoft tools to our research methodology will improve our understanding of what, where, how and why plastic pollution ends up on land, along our coasts, and in the ocean,” says Dr Hardesty. “We will be able to count and track plastic debris and conduct quantifiable assessments of the effectiveness of waste management programs, and evaluate intervention efforts.”

Microsoft digital tools will significantly improve the team’s current method of data collection using hand-written datasheets. By leveraging Microsoft Custom Vision, plastic debris in marine environments can be counted much faster and can be used in areas that are unsafe for manual collection and counting.

The rescheduled Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2020 will take place at Cologne Messe, Germany, on Monday 9 November and Tuesday 10 November. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email

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