Lake Tahoe a Proving Ground for Emerging Conservation Technology

BEBOT Pilot Project Brings Beach-Cleaning Robot to Tahoe’s Shores

Lake Tahoe is famous around the world for its crystal clear, blue waters. But, its beaches are known for something else: tourists and trash.

This summer, a beach-cleaning robot, known as BEBOT, made its way to the shore of the lake to help solve this problem. This pilot project was a collaborative effort between ECO-CLEAN Solutions and the League to Save Lake Tahoe – and it’s already been deemed a resounding success.

A photo of the blue and gray BEBOT robot after cleaning a section of the beach. The areas where the robot cleaned now have smooth sand.
Credit ECO-CLEAN Solutions

“In a few sites where it was man versus robot, in the sense that we marked off a 5,000 square-foot area, cleaned it by hand to the best of our ability with volunteers, essentially cleaning it until you can’t find any more trash, and then running the BEBOT over that exact same area,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer for League to Save Lake Tahoe. “In each case where we did that, we found ten times the amount of items that we picked up by hand. But what it showed is there’s a whole lot [of trash] just below the surface.”

In all, the BEBOT collected more than 6,000 pieces of trash that were hidden underneath the surface of the sand and had been missed by hand-picking crews. Much, if not all, of that trash could have ended up in the lake. The BEBOT, which is manufactured by the French company, Searial Cleaners, is able to find and collect hidden trash because it sifts between one-to-four inches of sand, deeper than what hand-picking crews can typically see and reach.

“What we’re doing is taking beach cleaning from two dimensional – just cleaning the surface of it – and taking it into the three dimensional because we’re able to get a couple inches down into the sand and pull up more than meets the eye,” said JB Harris, co-founder of ECO-CLEAN Solutions. “The BEBOT pushes the sand through this grate that shakes, and anything smaller than the five centimeters will fall back into the sand and then everything else will work its way up the grate into a hopper and we collect it.”

Launching the BEBOT as a pilot project was an extensive endeavor, as it took months to determine whether the BEBOT was even suitable to be used in Lake Tahoe’s delicate and sensitive ecosystems. But when Harris discovered that the BEBOT had been successfully deployed in sensitive areas such as near sea turtle nests in South Florida, he recognized the potential it had for Lake Tahoe.

“There was always a trade off between environmental concerns and pulling trash out of the sand,” said Harris. “The BEBOT didn’t have any of those concerns, it is small [and] remote-operated. The weight overall is about 1100 pounds spread out over two large tracks, so when you get into sand compaction issues, [impact] is very minimal. Then it’s all-electric, so there’s no emissions.”

Upon seeing the data supporting the BEBOT’s capabilities, the League to Save Lake Tahoe began orchestrating conversations with relevant stakeholders such as land managers, state parks and the US Forest Service to develop a pilot project for deploying the beach-cleaning robot in and around Lake Tahoe.

“We wanted to do it correctly through the proper channels with all the proper permits and [determine] what beaches were appropriate because Tahoe has a lot of variability as far as accessibility, sand versus rocks, sensitive habitats, other things like that,” Patterson said. “We’ve actually been talking to research institutes as well, Desert Research Institute, UC Davis, to just sort of see what can we do with this technology that’s also beneficial to the research into litter types, sources, where it’s coming from, how to get it out, education, outreach, all of those. So it wasn’t just land managers, it was also research institutes. It was also regulatory agencies, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, certainly.”

Over the course of the summer, the BEBOT was deployed across 11 beach sites: eight public and three private, traversing over 40,000 square feet of area. While uncovering substantial amounts of hidden trash was to be expected, Harris said there were some surprising benefits beyond standard cleanup.

“We pulled out over 5,000 Asian clamshells from the sand, which was pretty incredible because we did a pretty small section of beach,” Harris said. “If we find an area that has above average amount of Asian clamshells, we know there was a bloom offshore so we could relay that information to help redirect the resources.”

A photo graphic showing all the types of trash pulled out from the beach of Zephyr Shoals.
Invasive Asian Clams were among many types of trash and debris found by the BEBOT at Zephyr Shoals. Credit JT Chevallier / ECO-CLEAN Solutions

Aside from identifying blooms of Asian clamshells, which are an invasive species, the BEBOT has also inadvertently supported research of local plant species unique to Lake Tahoe’s ecosystems.

“We have a very sensitive and endemic species here at Tahoe, it’s a small plant called the Tahoe yellow cress; it only grows here in Lake Tahoe,” Patterson said. “We had a requirement to conduct a survey for the Tahoe yellow cress prior to any cleaning. That [requirement] had a net benefit of conducting additional surveys that may not be done in a normal year, that we were doing now because we wanted to activate the robot. New populations of Tahoe yellow cress were found in certain areas and we were able to avoid those [areas] bringing in the robot as well.”

After the success of this summer’s pilot project, the League to Save Lake Tahoe is now compiling the resulting data as it hopes to develop a plan that expands and incorporates the role of BEBOT in future beach-cleaning efforts.

“Twice a year would be nice, perhaps early in the season and then definitely at the end of the summer season before we go into winter and the rain and the storm water and the runoff that’s going to flush that trash from the sand into the lake where it’ll stay forever,” Patterson said. “[The BEBOT] has a place as at least a single annual cleanup on these heavily-populated and used beaches to make sure we’re not leaving anything behind that’s then going to drain into the lake.”

In order to streamline the process of using the BEBOT in the future, conversations between the relevant stakeholders will soon continue.

“If it’s a privately-owned beach, you need to work closely with that landowner and show them the data and show them the benefit of how it could help,” Patterson said. “With land managers that are on the public side, like the Forest Service, or state parks or others, it’d be better to get that codified or in the permits in some way, shape or form so there’s some accountability. But now that we have a technology that we know can be effective, it’s not asking folks to do something that’s not possible. With land managers and agencies, and they’re supportive and interested in this possibility, but we’re not there yet as far as formalizing it. Fortunately, we still have five, six months before we’re back into the summer season to kind of smooth some of that stuff out.”

Despite the success of this summer’s pilot project, JB Harris of ECO-CLEAN Solutions stressed that the BEBOT is not a cure-all solution for conservation efforts.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any single solution that’s going to really keep trash out of the lake or the beaches in Tahoe, but where the BEBOT does fit into that is it’s a great tool to use,” said Harris. “Hand cleanups don’t scale the way we need them to, especially with the levels of tourism that we’re seeing. The goal is to kind of try to create sustainability with tourism. The whole lake depends on tourism for a large amount of their economy and we got to figure out a way to live with it, instead of fighting against it with the goal being to really change the standard of how we take care of beaches in Lake Tahoe.”

With additional BEBOT robots and a structured implementation plan, Lake Tahoe may continue to find itself at the forefront of technological innovation and conservation efforts.

“Tahoe has unprecedented visitorship and we need to be able to keep up, so the traditional ways of doing things may not be enough,” said Patterson. “It is great to see the innovation and see people looking at Lake Tahoe as sort of a proving ground for technology. Lake Tahoe is a beautiful place that needs to be protected, but it’s not the only place and if Tahoe can serve as a living laboratory for these technologies, all the better. This is about learning what’s right for Tahoe, but also putting together information that can be shared with other places that maybe don’t have the resources or attention that Tahoe does, but deserve the same protections.”

Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Sierra Nevada Ally. He has a Master’s degree in Media Innovation from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing with a minor in Marketing from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Scott served for two years as a literacy instructor with the Peace Corps in the community of Gouyave, Grenada. Support his work.

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