IRBEE – Interactive Robot-Boats for Environmental Education

Creative Industries and IFE scholars and students partner on the challenge against waste in QLD Waterways.


Why it matters

The impact and extent of plastic waste on the planet has inundated the media over the last few months. This weekend, during Robotronica, Matt Dunbabin (IFE), Manuela Taboada (School of Design, IVD) and Tim Williams (School of Design, Industrial Design) presented IRBEE: a novel interactive tool for awareness raising, education and behavioural change towards plastic waste that ends up in our oceans and waterways.

This project undertook the world’s first known engagement and assessment of school students’ use of novel underwater robots with the specific aim of improving the interface and utility of the technology to help upscale the control of Crown-Of-Thorns Starfish (COTS) (Acanthaster planci) on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Specific targeted users were non-tech-savvy community members and key stakeholders who may wish to engage with, and utilise, advanced robotic tools for protecting the GBR and reefs worldwide.

Project Overview

In August 2017,  300 Robotronica visitors piloted an IRBEE (Interactive Robot-Boats for Environmental Education) at the Gardens Point swimming pool and actively participated in the Plastic Waste Elimination Challenge. Many more were spectators to the game.

IRBEEs, as their name suggest, are small robotised catamarans created to collect floating rubbish from coastal waterways. They are equipped with a camera and a sensor to locate and identify the waste collected. Each IRBEE unit is controlled individually via an interactive tablet system.

During Robotronica, IRBEE was presented as a game: 10 units divided into 2 teams which competed with each other to rid the swimming pool of thousands of coloured plastic balls! Each coloured ball represented a different type of waste and was worth varying points depending on their potential impact on the oceans and marine animals. These points were then translated into environmental information showing participants how their cleaning action could positively improve the marine environment.

This event was part of a research project – ‘Environmental Education Robots‘ which is focused on engaging school-aged students and the citizen science communities with robotic technology to increase awareness on environmental issues and encouraging broader “on-the-ground” action to help mitigate these problems.

Project Outcomes

This playful and rewarding activity helped engage kids of all ages in real action against waste through education. While having fun with the game, players and spectators learnt about the impacts that our consumption and waste patterns have on our planet.

The Creative Industries and IFE transdisciplinary team is now preparing to take the IRBEE Challenge to QLD primary schools as an awareness raising activity for students and as a tool to increase student participation in STEM subjects. The plan is then to bring the robot boats to high-schools in 2018 to provoke a design and robotics challenge and engage students in creating a new version of IRBEE that can be efficient in cleaning real waste from real QLD waterways.


Dunbabin, MatthewTaboada, Manuela, & Williams, Tim (2017) IRBEE – Interactive Robot-Boats for Environmental Education. [Exhibition/Event], view on ePrints

Project Team 

Professor Matt Dunbabin

Dr Manuela Taboada 

Tim Williams

IRBEE units and its control systems were designed and produced from scratch at QUT, by the transdisciplinary team of academics, student volunteers and technicians at the School of Design J-Block Workshop.