Trash Robot


After the installation of our first floating habitat in June 2017, we found that one specific issue continued to plague the otherwise beautiful area...trash.

First, we tried cleaning it up by hand. Every other day someone would kayak out to the habitat to remove garbage, but that was not enough. Trash appeared at random times and in large quantities. Sometimes we would remove every piece of trash in the morning and by the afternoon more had reappeared.

So, we created at Trash Task Force and went to the drawing board – this project could have never gotten to the level of sophistication that it is at today without the hard work of our task force. Our team then prototyped a remote controlled boat, which was capable of herding trash to a safe location where it could then be removed. This proved not only effective...but super entertaining.

We realized that we could possibly make this an interactive experience by linking the trashbot to our website and letting anyone, anywhere, help clean up the trash in the Chicago River.


We've raised almost $6,000 to finance v.2. of the bot, which will include a modified design to withstand all seasons, a home base trash station, and a high-power Wifi station. As we continue to raise funds, the $10,000 mark give us the ability to have more than one robot in the river, along with greater flexibility with the accessories we attach to the bot.

Once we are able to prototype this bot, we will be able to assess how we can expand this idea to other rivers. All our designs and learnings will be Open Source. We are actively seeking people to change, modify and enhance our project – please reach out at if interested. Our rivers and waterways are in bad shape, and we need all the help we can get to create more healthy, wildlife-focused waterways.


We are certainly aware that nothing like this trash robot has been done before, so unexpected risks and challenges will undoubtedly present themselves. 

Our top concern is vandalism; however, due to the nature of the device, it will have GPS tracking, which can mitigate this risk. There are also cameras in the area tracking wildlife, which will ideally discourage would-be vandals. And lastly, there will be a tether attached to the bot to prevent the device from running/floating/getting dragged away. 

Our second concern is software security. We take this very seriously and will utilize outside auditors to verify that our implementation is secure. There is a minimum amount of damage a malicious actor could perform. Mostly, we worry they could intentionally and repeatedly crash the device. As stated above, there will be a safety tether, as well as a virtual GPS "cage" to limit the navigable area that the bot can travel around our installation.


 A fat summertime squash almost ripe for the picking.

A fat summertime squash almost ripe for the picking.


Aquaponics is defined as a system of aquaculture where the waste produced by farmed aquatic animals (typically fish), supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purifies the water. Since we are performing that exact same process, but on a river, we coined the term 'river-ponics'.

Co-founders, Nick Wesley and Zachary Damato, attempted their first try at river-ponics in 2015 with a single cherry tomato plant, on the then floating raft, the 'Fitzcarraldo'. Now, with Urban Rivers' flagship floating garden in the water and Module 56 (brandy wine tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, cucumber, green zucchini), Module 57 (green cup cabbage, purple cabbage, summertime squash, lacinato kale, curly kale) and Module 58 (lemon basil, thyme, rosemary) dedicated to river-ponics, the feasibility of executing this exciting process is being put to the test. 

Samples of the plants will be harvested, once mature, to test their toxicity levels in order to determine potential health risks and to adjust future growing plans. Our team is extremely excited about the potential of these locally and sustainably grown crops, which will be the first crops ever grown on the Chicago River. Their roots will also aid in improving the river's water quality (phytoremediation) and will provide aquatic organisms with habitat and refuge. 


Aside from the reasons mentioned above, our organization is driven to prove that urban rivers can serve communities in economically viable ways, other than shipping goods and transporting sewage down stream. From creating habitat to growing food; we're dedicated to inspire. 

Come out and see our crops for yourself – we might even let you try some! Send us a note at

 The herbs and leafy-greens took immediately to the garden.

The herbs and leafy-greens took immediately to the garden.


After our flagship installation’s first full growing season in the river, we took a representative range of crops from our river-ponics section and submitted them for food quality testing with Deibel Labs in Lincolnwood, IL. The samples we submitted included a few gourds (squash & cucumber), leafy green vegetables (kale, cabbage and lettuce) and tomatoes. Deibel Labs ran these samples through a process called, inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy, which determined the levels of heavy metal accumulation in each different crop. This is vital data to capture, as we need to understand which pollutants are absorbed by our crops, due to their presence in the river.

Through this testing, of the 6 different species of crops we sampled, none had any detectable levels of arsenic, cadmium, or mercury, which are heavy metal pollutants of concern for human and animal health. However, we did find that there were variable amounts of lead absorbed by the leafy green vegetables only, in the order of .1 to .21 ppm for a given species. These lead amounts alone would make the leafy green vegetables unsuitable for human consumption in quantities over 3 ounces.  

Moving forward, our team will utilize this data to adjust growing methods, as well as the species of crop in the river-ponics section, in an effort to learn more about what crops can best be grown in polluted urban waterways. Onward and upward!