Speaking to Lusa, Hugo Silva, a researcher at the Institute of Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC), one of the three institutions that make up the project, explained that it arose from a "challenge" launched by ESA under the General Support Technological Programme.

"ESA needs to understand if it can detect marine litter on the surface using satellite technology, but it does not know if it is possible to develop this technology, so it launched an exploratory project and will evaluate the possibility, in the future, if this technology is validated", he stated.

In this sense, INESC TEC, IMAR / Centro Okeanos of the University of the Azores and the AIR Centre (Atlantic International Research Centre) will, during the next nine months, test perception technologies to remotely detect waste concentrated in shallow waters.

According to Hugo Silva, the researchers will, using hyper-spectral cameras placed on board manned and unmanned airplanes, obtain data and images that, at a later stage, and after being analyzed, will allow the identification and characterization of marine waste.

"A hyper-spectral camera does not provide a normal image in the visible spectrum, since it has two types of information: the one we classify as spatial, and that is a normal image, and then there is the spectral information, which is what we think will allow us to distinguish plastic from what is in the background", he explained.

To Lusa, the researcher said that tests in a real environment will take place during the "end of May and beginning of June" off the island of Faial, in the Azores, and will be carried out in synchronization with the Sentinel-2 satellite.

"The idea is to try to compare the data we get from the satellite and the data we get from our sensors," said Hugo Silva, adding that, only after testing in a real environment will it be possible to "say whether the technology can identify the waste".

"At this point, it is still not guaranteed that the technology can identify marine litter, so we will try to assess whether, when using sensors with higher resolution than those of the satellite, it will be possible in the future to be able to place these sensors on board the satellites and use them to identify the garbage", he said.

Although the tests developed under the ESA programme are only for the detection of marine waste, such as household waste and plastics [in macro and micro proportions], the researchers' idea is, in the future, to adapt the identified waste extraction methods to the system.

"The idea is that we can, in real time, identify the 'hotspot' [zones of concentration of garbage] and activate the means, whether human or automatic, to go and collect this garbage. In the end, help to clean the ocean", he concluded.

This project developed under the General Support Technological Programme, an initiative that supports technological developments for future ESA missions, has the support of the Regional Fund for Science and Technology.