Portugal Space opens applications for plastic ocean detection program

Registrations run until October and the best research proposal receives up to 500 thousand euros. The competition is open to national and international entities, the latter being obliged to work in close cooperation with the Portuguese institutions, which must be project leaders or, alternatively, establish activity in Portugal.

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Portugal Space, the national space agency, opened applications for the 'AI Moonshot Challenge', a research program that seeks disruptive ideas, which combine satellite data and Artificial Intelligence, for the detection of plastic in the Oceans.

Registrations run until October and the best research proposal receives up to 500 thousand euros.

“The first edition of the 'AI Moonshot Challenge' is open, an international competition promoted by the Portuguese Space Agency - Portugal Space in partnership with Unbabel Labs, and with the support of the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), from European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Innovation Agency (ANI). This initiative, in line with the Portugal Space 2030 National Strategy, aims to boost the use of spatial data to advance scientific research and develop innovative solutions to societal problems ”, explains a statement from the national space agency.

According to this document, “the challenge is launched to universities, research institutes, state laboratories, private or public non-profit organizations that are dedicated to scientific research or companies, including 'startups', that link satellite data and Artificial Intelligence to develop R&D activities with a view to detecting, screening, characterizing and quantifying the different types of plastic in the oceans, also considering rivers, lakes or potential places of origin ”.

"The plastics that pollute the oceans can have very different origins, they can come from land, or be dropped directly into the oceans by fishing boats or transport ships, and vary in their shape, composition and size", explains Carolina Sá, responsible for Portugal Space Industrial Relations and Earth Observation Projects.

A significant part of this waste is invisible to the naked eye, the so-called microplastics, but others have significant dimensions, for example, the fishing gear left at sea. "The identification, quantification and monitoring of this debris is crucial if we want to understand the Portugal Space problem in all its dimensions and assess which corrective or preventive measures will be most effective", adds the marine science specialist.

According to Portugal Space officials, more than 4,8 million tons of plastic waste could end up in the oceans in a single year.

“This component of marine pollution is a problem that is only now beginning to be understood, but which needs urgent resolution for the impacts it causes on marine ecosystems, including environmental, economic, safety and even public health problems. A United Nations study, published in 2014, indicates that about 700 marine species and 50 freshwater species have already ingested or been trapped in plastics. Pollution not only has aesthetic effects in coastal areas, it blocks drainage systems, creates an environment conducive to the reproduction of disease vectors. The same document estimates that the impact of marine pollution on fishing, tourism and maritime transport is in the order of 13 billion dollars / year ”, points out the statement.

With this initiative, the Portuguese Space Agency intends to challenge researchers and companies to gather “satellite data and Artificial Intelligence to create tools that contribute to the solution, helping to identify and monitor plastic debris at a local and global scale”, explains Carolina Sá.

Portugal Space highlights that the best proposal will receive up to 500 thousand euros as a prize to finance a research project with a maximum duration of two years to be carried out from Portugal.

The competition is open to national and international entities, the latter being obliged to work in close cooperation with the Portuguese institutions, which must be project leaders or, alternatively, establish activity in Portugal.

“This contest is clearly global in scope as we aim to find solutions that can be applied anywhere in the globe, but it also has an important local component since we intend to promote the development of national technology or that there is a transfer of knowledge and technology to Portugal” , says Carolina Sá, adding that the proposals submitted by foreign entities must "provide the guarantees that they will be able to develop activity from Portugal".

The competition rules now known stipulate that more than one team can be selected as long as the estimated total budget does not exceed 500 thousand euros.

The proposals will be evaluated by an international jury of experts in the fields of Remote Sensing by Satellite and Artificial Intelligence, and chaired by Paolo Corradi, systems engineer from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Carolina Sá, from the Portuguese Space Agency.

Innovation will be the main factor under consideration, as well as the technical and scientific solidity of the proposals, assures Portugal Space.

Proposals can be submitted until 23:59 pm (CET) on 4 October 2020.

The best candidates will be invited to present their ideas during this year's edition of the Web Summit, which runs from the 2nd to the 4th of December. The winner (s) will also be announced during the event.

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