CSIRO to use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sensors to end plastic waste

CSIRO is working with Microsoft and Hobart City Council to develop these new technology solutions.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor and  Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has announced partnerships with Microsoft, Hobart City Council, and Chemistry Australia to address -- and attempt to end -- Australia's plastics waste issue.

Under its plastics mission, CSIRO will work with its partners to develop new solutions that use artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and camera sensors for plastics detection and waste monitoring in waterways.

CSIRO senior principal research scientist Denise Hardesty said the goal would be to apply technology to the entire plastics supply chain to eliminate rubbish ending up in the environment.

"Our research is helping to understand the extent of plastic pollution in Australia and globally, and how to reduce it," she said.

"Rethinking plastic packaging is just one way of reducing waste, through better design, materials, and logistics. We can also transform the way we use, manufacture, and recycle plastics by creating new products and more value for plastics."

Specifically, the national science agency is working with Microsoft to use ML and apply camera sensor technologies to waste traps, which are commonly used by councils to prevent rubbish flowing into storm drains, to collect data that can help detect and classify rubbish found in waterways.

Read also: A long-term battle: The tech industry's role in combatting climate change

"Microsoft AI image recognition is underpinning the identification of plastic pollution," Microsoft Australia CTO Lee Hickin said.

"By using AI to accelerate the detection and classification of rubbish in our waterways, we can simply react more quickly and work to improve the quality of water faster than if done manually."

At the same time, CSIRO is working with Hobart City Council to develop an autonomous sensor network to provide real-time reporting on the amount of rubbish being captured in storm drains.

"By tapping into CSIRO's modelling capabilities, we can optimise our operations to avoid the release of pollutants, while improving safety and reducing environmental harm," City of Hobart Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds said.

Work will also be undertaken with Chemistry Australia to help Australians understand how to sustainably use, re-use, and recycle plastic products, CSIRO said.

The plastics mission is one of 12 missions CSIRO has developed under its plan, known as Team Australia, that is aimed at solving some of the country's challenges using science and technology so it can emerge from COVID-19 in a resilient way.

CSIRO said it would commit at least AU$100 million annually to the co-creation of missions under the plan.

"Each mission represents a major scientific research program aimed at making significant breakthroughs, not unlike solving Prickly Pear, curing the rabbit plague, inventing the first flu treatment, or creating fast Wi-Fi," CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall said previously.

"But let me stress, these are not just CSIRO's missions.

"Their size and scale require us to collaborate widely across the innovation system, to boldly take on challenges that are far bigger than any single institution."

See also: How AI could save the environment (TechRepublic)

Dr Cathy Foley named as Australia's next chief scientist

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced the appointment of Dr Cathy Foley as Australia's next chief scientist.

Foley will end her tenure as the CSIRO's chief scientist when she takes on her new role in December.

"As we recover from COVID-19 and look to rebuild a brighter future, the role of the chief scientist has never been more important," Morrison said.

"Dr Foley has a big task ahead to drive collaboration between industry and the science and research community, as we look to create jobs for the COVID-19 recovery and for the future."

Dr Foley is a fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science, and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, and has made significant contributions in the area of physics relating to superconductors.

Her appointment as Australia's chief scientist will be for three years and starts in January 2021. Foley will take over from current chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel.

"I would like to thank Dr Alan Finkel AO for his outstanding contribution as chief scientist over the past five years. He has been a valued and respected voice to government, and I know he will continue to make a significant contribution to the Australian and international science communities," the prime minister said.

Appearing during Senate Estimates last month, Finkel said he was preparing a report for National Cabinet into the systems for supporting contact tracing and outbreak management across all states and territories.

He also said there was still a long way to go before the country would reach parity of female and male participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

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