From Clearwater to St. Pete Beach, Pinellas is home to 11 barrier islands providing 35 miles of powdery white beaches that serve as a haven for the county’s million residents, and a welcome respite for several million more annual visitors.
Since 1992, Keep Pinellas Beautiful (KPB) has focused on exactly what its name implies, especially regarding the peninsula’s extensive coastline. Keeping people from littering and beaches pristine is not an easy task, and the nonprofit organization will soon have some help in its cleaning and awareness efforts in the form of a beach scouring robot, BeBot.
While not quite Rosie the Robot – the housekeeper from The Jetsons – Pat DePlasco, executive director of KPB, said it is thorough.
“I would think it does a better job than humans,” she said. “Only because I don’t think we’re as patient.”
BeBot comes courtesy of the Surfing’s Evolution & Preservation Foundation, led by surfing legend Ron DiMenna of Cocoa Beach-based Ron Jon Surf Shop fame. Florida’s ubiquitous “Endless Summer” license plates fund the organization, which provided BeBot to Keep Florida Beautiful (KFB). The Pinellas chapter is one of 40 KFB affiliates that stretch from the Panhandle to the Keys – and KFB is the first nonprofit organization in the county to utilize the innovative technology to remove debris, preserve beaches and spread awareness.
Manufactured by Poralu Marine, BeBot is remote-controlled and 100% electric. Around the size of a golf cart, solar panels atop the cleaning mechanism power the machine. BeBot can pick up litter as small as one square centimeter and could clean up to 32,391 square feet an hour.
Despite those seemingly impressive numbers, DePlasco said that for KPB, BeBot is a temporary educational tool. The machine is currently scouring the beaches of Brevard County, home to the Surfing’s Evolution & Preservation Foundation. DePlasco said KPB would assume control of BeBot throughout July.
“This would take a long time for the beach to be cleaned that way,” she said. “My goal is to collect and display all of the things that we’ve collected on all the beaches and really publicize that.
“This is what we got from Madeira Beach; this is what we got from Clearwater Beach … so people will realize what they leave behind.”
DePlasco added that the Bebot costs about $6,800, not including the trailer. In addition to costs, she noted the machine still requires a human operator to remotely control the robot and scan the beach to ensure it does not go near any small animals or nesting sites. However, sunbathers and beach towels are in the clear, said DePlasco, as BeBot only picks up smaller debris.
She explained that BeBot rakes and scoops the sand before running it through a fine mesh that collects debris. Operators, in this case, KPB volunteers, must periodically empty the collection mechanism.
BeBot’s solar panels charge a large battery, said DePlasco, and the machine comes with two to alternate between uses. She said KPB would need to establish how long they can run the BeBot before needing a new battery, which she said weighs nearly 200 pounds.
“Changing out the batteries is definitely labor-intensive,” she said.
While DePlasco stressed that Bebot was an awareness tool for KPB, she said hotels and beachside businesses could find it ideal. She also left the door open for a change of heart, noting she is basing her opinion on a quick introduction to the robot in Cocoa Beach.
“You never know,” she said. “I could be changing my mind after I spend a month working with it.”
More than anything, DePlasco wants to stop the marine debris problem at its source – people.
In 2019, before the pandemic, Pinellas set a record for the number of tourists to visit the county with 15.2 million, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. The organization also reported that tourism supplied a $9 billion economic impact that year, largely due to the area’s pristine beaches that various publications perennially rank as some of the best in America.
Despite those numbers and the relative ease with which beachgoers could pick up their trash and any left in their vicinity by others, DePlasco said there is still a huge littering problem. She also noted nearly everything left in the sand ends up in the water and impacts marine life.
“If everyone just does a little bit – think about what a more beautiful world we can create,” she said.
BeBot should make its Pinellas County debut July 5, DePlasco said, to assist in the annual post-Independence Day cleanup. With the multitudes of holiday beachgoers and the preponderance of firework debris from the 4th of July festivities, she said volunteers could use the extra robotic hand.
“We should have an awful lot of stuff on that one,” she said. “That’ll be a great teaching tool.”