VITO and River Cleanup launch unique research project that combines citizen science and AI

The Waste Watchers project engages civilians to use drones to take photographs of the banks of the river Scheldt. Artificial Intelligence then detects where most of the litter is located. This VITO and River Cleanup research project is a world first, the first time the wider public is involved by using their drones to identify litter.

Waste Watchers came about following a project appeal by amai! The programme not only aims to inform civilians about Artificial Intelligence, it also wants to actively involve people in the development of new AI applications in Flanders. Selected research projects that combine AI and citizen science will receive financial support from the Flemish government.

VITO (Vlaamse Instelling voor Technologisch Onderzoek - Flemish Technological Research Institute) contacted River Cleanup putting forward the idea of initiating a research project, researcher and Waste Watchers project manager Klaas Pauly explained. “We came up with the idea of charting litter on the banks of the river Scheldt using AI. However, this is a huge area to cover. Using multiple drones that could each produce an image of a small section of the riverbank, it became possible to combine all these images. This project provides a unique opportunity to involve the wider public and deploy technology to generate awareness about a significant societal problem. We at VITO have the technological expertise in-house, but we have limited experience with the idea of engaging civilians. This is where River Cleanup comes in.”

Thomas de Groote, founder and CEO of River Cleanup: “We are convinced that technology will be able to accelerate the clearance of litter in and around our rivers. Over a period of six years we have developed into an organisation with more than 200,000 volunteers, actively involved in 89 countries. If we combine all these helping hands with technology, we will be able to tackle litter even more efficiently and effectively. A project such as Waste Watchers complements our mission perfectly.”

Drone images and AI detection

Waste Watchers will progress in three stages:

  1. Drones will patrol the banks of the river Scheldt. Anyone using a drone to collate images can then upload them onto the River Cleanup website. The intention is to chart the banks along the entire length of the river Scheldt in July and August.
  2. Using AI, the images will then be converted into a user-friendly (waste) dispersal map that will clearly show how much litter is present in each zone. VITO Remote Sensing is developing specific image processing software to automatically process the large number of drone images.
  3. River Cleanup will use the AI analysis to organise dedicated clearance campaigns and send volunteers to the main ‘hotspots’.

Flight days

Identifying litter using drones and AI is not a new idea but worldwide it is the first time that the general public is involved on such a large scale. Citizen science is also rapidly developing in other areas such as ‘Curieuzeneuzen’, a research project in which thousands of civilians help to chart air pollution or drought. Scientists are able to exponentially collate far more data by involving civilians in their research. This is also the underlying idea for Waste Watchers.

Those who would like to participate in the research project can do so in two ways:

  • Lots of people have drones nowadays that they regularly ‘take out for a spin’. This summer they will be able to use their drone to scout and photograph sections of the banks of the river Scheldt.
  • VITO and River Cleanup are also organising five flight days at different locations along the river Scheldt. On those days in July and August you will not only be provided with information on the Waste Watchers project, but following a brief initiation you will be able to use your own drone to complete a reconnaissance flight.

Why not become a Waste Watcher!

Any data concerning flight days and practical information on how to upload your images can be found, together with specific project information, at


About VITO

VITO is a leading, international research and advice centre that offers ground-breaking technological solutions that help businesses and policymakers provide a solution for the enormous challenges we are facing during the transition to a more sustainable environment.

VITO’s remote sensing unit has more than 25 years of experience in the processing of satellite, aerial and drone images for various applications, including land use, water quality and the environment. VITO Remote Sensing has built up international expertise in the processing and analysis of various earth observation data. Using innovative image processing techniques (AI, deep learning, etc.) VITO Remote Sensing is able to deliver useful and objective information as well as operational platforms that enable our national and international end users to take action more quickly and effectively.

About River Cleanup

River Cleanup, which started its operations with a 10 minute clean-up in 2017, has since developed into an international organisation with 200,000 volunteers active in 90 countries. The Belgian non-profit organisation aims to intercept plastic before it reaches our oceans by clearing rivers, changing behaviours and transforming organisations. Partners include AB Safety, A.S.Adventure, Boma, Delhaize, Keytrade Bank, Multi Masters Group and Volkswagen Belgium.

About amai!

Amai! aims to inform citizens about AI and involve them in the development of new AI applications in Flanders by bringing together AI experts, domain organisations and civilians and focusing on four topics, i.e. climate and the environment, mobility, health and work. Smart AI solutions relating to these themes are being developed on the basis of socially relevant demand. AI solutions are always developed in consultation with civilians, AI experts and experts in the field of the specific topic. Amai! thus manages to make a positive contribution to society by generating awareness and innovative project finance resources.

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