A world first for Belgium: citizens using drones to find waste on the banks of the river Scheldt

October 26, 2023

Waste Watchers came about following a project appeal by Amai! The program not only aims to inform civilians about Artificial Intelligence, it also wants to actively involve people in the development of new AI applications in Flanders. Selected research projects that combine AI and citizen science will receive financial support from the Flemish government.

VITO (Vlaamse Instelling voor Technologisch Onderzoek - Flemish Technological Research Institute) contacted River Cleanup putting forward the idea of initiating a research project, researcher and Waste Watchers project manager Klaas Pauly explained.


“We came up with the idea of charting litter on the banks of the river Scheldt using AI. However, this is a huge area to cover. Using multiple drones that could each produce an image of a small section of the riverbank, it became possible to combine all these images. This project provides a unique opportunity to involve the wider public and deploy technology to generate awareness about a significant societal problem. We at VITO have the technological expertise in-house, but we have limited experience with the idea of engaging civilians. This is where River Cleanup comes in.”

Thomas de Groote, founder and CEO of River Cleanup:


“We are convinced that technology will be able to accelerate the cleanup of waste in and along our rivers. Over a period of six years we have developed into an organisation with more than 200,000 volunteers, actively involved in 90 countries. If we combine all these helping hands with technology, we can clean rivers even more efficiently and effectively. A project such as Waste Watchers complements our mission perfectly.”

Drone images and AI detection

Waste Watchers will progress in three stages:

  1. Drones will patrol the banks of the river Scheldt. Anyone using a drone to collate images can then upload them onto the River Cleanup website. The intention is to chart the banks along the entire length of the river Scheldt in July and August.
  2. Using AI, the images will be converted into a user-friendly (waste) dispersal map that will clearly show how much litter is present in each zone. VITO Remote Sensing is developing specific image processing software to process a large number of drone images automatically.
  3. River Cleanup will use AI analysis to identify the root cause of the pollution and organize cleanup on the hotspots.

Flight days

Identifying litter using drones and AI is not a new idea, but worldwide, it is the first time that the general public is involved on such a large scale. Citizen science is also rapidly developing in other areas, such as ‘Curieuzeneuzen’, a research project in which thousands of civilians help to chart air pollution or drought. Scientists are able to exponentially collate far more data by involving civilians in their research. This is also the underlying idea for Waste Watchers.


Those who would like to participate in the research project can do so in two ways:

  • Many people nowadays have drones that they regularly ‘take out for a spin’. This summer, they will be able to use their drone to scout and photograph sections of the banks of the river Scheldt.
  • VITO and River Cleanup also organize five flight days at different locations along the river Scheldt. On those days in July and August, participants will not only be provided with information on the Waste Watchers project, but following a brief initiation, they will have the opportunity to use one of the Waste Watcher drones to perform a flight and collect images.

Why not become a Waste Watcher!


Any data concerning flight days and practical information on how to upload your images can be found, together with specific project information, at ​ https://www.river-cleanup.org/en/waste-watchers.