11/19/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Robot Trash Collector Scours The Waters Of The Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor

SANTA CRUZ -- In a tech-based twist to beach cleanup, a robot owned by an East Coast nonprofit scoured the ocean floor Sunday at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor.

The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) known as Hector the Collector is owned by The Rozalia Project, a Kittery, Maine, operation that aims to clean the country's waterways of debris while inspiring and educating others to do the same.

The group says it is the first to use the VideoRay robotic system to collect trash from the ocean.

They came to Santa Cruz largely due to intern Marina Maze, a UC Santa Cruz graduate who grew up in Boulder Creek and helped paved the way for their visit, Director Rachael Miller said.

Maze is going to be handling California cleanups and education, which will supplement the work of other groups like Save Our Shores, Miller said.

Sunday, a crowd of kids and adults gathered on a dock near the harbor launch ramp, peering over Miller's shoulder at a screen with a live camera feed from Hector. A secondary screen depicted a sonar system.

The VideoRay camera/ROV device revealed shells, a Dungeness crab, and more along the bay floor, moved along by a strong current. But little trash was visible aside from an old bungee cord that Hector picked up with its pincher-like grippers, Miller said.

"It's pretty clean here," she said. "We need to express some collective gratitude for that."

Hector, a small yellow ROV about the size of a toaster, was on a tether a small distance out from the dock.

Barbara Peterson, who owns a boat in the harbor, said the robot operation was "totally awesome."

She said she found a blue plastic hand floating near her boat recently, sparking a comeback from Rozalia outreach director Rebecca Inver Moffa who said Hector once hauled up a tie-on plastic butt.

Moffa said they find trash of all kinds, including lots of tires and some bikes, and that Hector can lift up to 75 pounds.

Christian Kisling, 13, said he thought the camera was pretty cool. He was especially interested because he is in the Underwater Robotic Club at New Brighton Middle School. He said they make ROVs and test them out in a pool.

"The camera is pretty fast," he said.

His friend, Bryce Gauthier, said he liked the camera, too.

"And the grabber mechanism was cool," he added.

The small Rozalia Project group does presentations also.

They recently visited other areas in California, after a stop in Chicago. and are on to the Houston area next, Miller said. In the summer, the ROV is launched from a 60-foot research vessel called American Promise, which is harbored in Kittery, she said.

"A great part of what we do is inspire people to use technology to find new solutions," Miller said. "We're excited to complement what some great groups here in California are already doing."

The project is funded largely by corporate sponsors and foundations, she said.

Miller and her husband, James Lyne, who races sailboats and coaches sailboat racing, started it three years ago. She said she just got sick of seeing trash in the ocean and decided to do something about it.

Miller trains people on the ROV use, too, from Navy Reserve Explosive Ordinance Disposal Units to volunteer Search and Rescue teams.

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