Richard Hardiman is using drones to rid the world’s seas of trash. He faced bankruptcy and depression before the project went from prototype to profit.
Rubbish in the world’s oceans has reached critical levels that threaten not only marine life but also our own future on this planet as we know it, as fragile eco-systems are eroded.
What is already out on the seas, estimated by National Geographic to be growing by almost a million tonnes per year, is lost, but South African entrepreneur Richard Hardiman has developed a drone to catch this waste at source – the harbors and ports of the world – before it hits the ocean.rubbish in the world’s oceans has reached critical levels that threaten not only marine life but also our own future on this planet as we know it, as fragile eco-systems are eroded.
The WasteShark has been in planning and product testing stages since 2015, but is now sold globally as a drone that can clear the water of waste and help halt what is a growing catastrophe on our seas.
It has been a long personal battle for Cape Town-based Hardiman, one that brought him to the edge of despair.
But with the product in the water in a growing number of countries, including South Africa, the United States, India, the United Arab Emirates, Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, his Rotterdam-based company RanMarine Technology is primed to be a leader in this niche field.
“The initial idea was not motivated by trying to solve environmental problems,” Hardiman tells FORBES AFRICA. “I was sitting at the Waterfont in Cape Town watching these guys out in boats with pool nets pulling the plastic from the water.
“It irritated me that there was a lot of trash and they were trying to solve the problem with a little net. In was inefficient and you could see trash being swept out into the open ocean.”
Hardiman, who worked as a radio host for much of his adult life, developed the idea for a drone that could mechanize the process, either controlled from the shore or on its own as a robot in the water.
“I built a prototype, literally in my garage, by sticking some PVC pipes together and did some research on the internet,” he says.
“I taught myself how to code on to my phone and came up with a small drone I put into my pool and started to drive around. It did what it was supposed to do.”
Hardiman had no luck finding early investors in South Africa though.
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“The feedback was quite good, but if I’m honest my pitch was terrible,” he says. “In trying to raise money, the one thing I have learned is that your pitch needs to be perfect. If you cannot be precise with every answer to every conceivable question, it turns investors off.
“Although people love the environment, let’s face it, if they are putting money into it they want to see a return on investment.”
The ingenuity of the idea caught the attention of Accelerator though, a program to help start-ups based in Rotterdam. Hardiman began in the top 1,000 entries from around the world, eventually making it to the final 20 after an arduous series of interviews.
He was then required to make the journey to the Netherlands for the finals and by this time had sunk so much energy, time and money into the project that the married father-of-three had nothing left to fund the trip.
“I was completely broke, I had no money left. I was taking any job I could get. I was penniless,” he admits.
Hardiman eventually found a local investor who took a punt on the project and lent him the money to get himself to the Accelerator finals.
“He gave me enough money to pay for the trip and to survive for about six months. But when I landed in Rotterdam, his cheque hadn’t cleared yet, my credit card had zero funds in it and I had five Euros in my pocket.
“Each day for a week I would walk from my hotel to the [Accelerator] event, which was about five kilometers away, sometimes in the rain and snow.
“Everybody else was so well-dressed and I would arrive in a soaking wet suit.”
But the response to WasteShark was overwhelming and he made it into the Accelerator program, which meant leaving his Cape Town-based family behind to live in Rotterdam for the next three months.
“After the three months we had done really well and we got a pilot with the Port of Rotterdam, which is the largest port in the world. They put 100,000 Euros into what would be a six-month project.”
But there would be more hurdles for Hardiman to face and the worst was yet to come.
“I fell out with the original engineering firm and brought on another partner that proved to be a disaster. It just wasn’t the right fit. By the end of 2016, I was completely out of money again and we were only halfway through development.
“I came back to South Africa licking my wounds. We had spent a lot of money and it had not really gone anywhere. In terms of investors, I found that the Dutch love innovation, but they hate risk, so nobody wanted to come into the project early.
“I went into a deep spiral of depression. I’d gone from having money to no money again. I had half a product that I needed to make work because I had a family to support.
“But I found I just couldn’t get out of bed, I really felt like I had screwed up and let everybody down.”
A chance meeting at a children’s party led to Hardiman finding a local South African investor who liked the idea of the project and could see the potential. He returned to the Netherlands.
“I just needed enough money to get through to June 2017 because by then we would have finished the product development stage. Then we could start selling.”
A little more than a year on and WasteShark is becoming a feature of a number of ports and harbors, and Hardiman has now moved on to the next stage.
“We sold one, then another, and suddenly it just started taking off,” he says. “We have been inundated with interest from all around the world. It’s a new position for us to be in, from the phase of trying to get a finished product out to going into production.”
Hardiman says that while they could have gotten carried away with technology on the WasteShark, the aim was actually to make the drone as simple as possible.
“I had this vision of a guy on Lake Malawi using our drone and when I sat down with the group of engineers to plan the product, there were many fantastic ideas about what we could do.
“But I was firm in my mind that we need to cater for that guy in Malawi. If a thruster is broken, he can fix it himself. It must be easy for him to operate, be simple and robust.”
Hardiman says they have numerous other versions of the WasteShark in planning and production including one that provides data on the quality of the water and another that can clean up oil in harbors. The next version will be ready September.
He adds he is most often asked what he hopes to do about the critical issue of plastic in the oceans, but the realistic goal for now is to stop the problem getting worse.
“My goal is not to solve the issue that is already out there, because that’s not realistic. It’s to stop the problem getting worse.
“If we can do that in a canal, river, marina or harbor, where most of the trash in the sea comes from, then you are starting to win the battle.”
– Nick Said