UK council to use drones and AI to tackle litter

A flying drone
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) council is deploying a pilot scheme this summer making use of drone-based technology to tackle litter in the local area.

The council has partnered with environmental charity Hubbub and McDonald’s to trial the scheme. It will use intelligence gathered from drone data to help dictate the future placement of bins, street cleaning schedules, and any required behaviour change encouragement campaigns to persuade visitors to dispose of their rubbish responsibly.

“We are delighted to have been invited to participate in this national collaboration, at no cost to the council, which will enhance our plans to tackle the issue of litter across our three towns," said Councillor Mark Anderson, portfolio holder for Environment, Cleansing and Waste.

“The pilot we are intending to run with Hubbub and McDonald’s will enhance that existing work, I’m really look[ing] forward to seeing the project get underway and the results we can all benefit from.”

The initiative, which is being funded by McDonald’s, Britvic and two packaging suppliers, will identify and categorise individual pieces of litter so the council can understand what is being dropped where and when. The campaign will utilise drones, fixed cameras and mobile and vehicle technology to create detailed litter maps, identifying hot spots and “building an understanding of how litter is travelling”.

The same type of technology was used in the Italian town of Sorrento last summer where it was “hailed a huge success” as it allowed the authorities to reduce litter by 45% and cigarette butt waste by 69%.

“We are thrilled to be funding this truly innovative campaign, along with some of our key packaging and drinks suppliers," said Helen McFarlane, senior sustainability consultant for McDonald’s.

“Our teams have been carrying out litter patrols in our communities for nearly 40 years; 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 behaviour and encourage those people who do litter to act more responsibly.”

Basing behaviour change activity on real data will help the project maximise its impact, according to Trewin Restorick, CEO and co-founder of Hubbub.

“Litter continues to cause problems for authorities in every part of the country. We want to create a replicable campaign that can be used as a template for future projects in other locations. Collaboration is at the heart of this campaign, so we’re keen to get as many local businesses and community groups on board to play their part,” he added.

Drones have been increasingly utilised by authorities in recent years. Indeed, in 2019, Police Scotland launched a new neural network-driven drone programme to help find people who had gone missing. The drones, which included technology like advanced cameras and AI-powered software, allowed pilots to determine whether something that appears on a screen is a person.

And, back in 2017, it emerged that over half of all UK councils had issued body-worn cameras to officials recording parking infractions, while failing to conduct adequate privacy impact assessments, according to civil liberties and privacy campaigning group Big Brother Watch.

More than half (54%) of the 227 councils had used or trialled the technology to monitor minor offences such as breaking parking rules and littering, with costs totalling almost £1.8m.

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.