Beach litter assessments rely on time inefficient and high human cost protocols, mining the attainment of global beach litter estimates. Here we show the application of an emerging technique, the use of drones for acquisition of high-resolution beach images coupled with machine learning for their automatic processing, aimed at achieving the first national-scale beach litter survey completed by only one operator. The aerial survey
had a time efficiency of 570 ± 40 m2 min−1 and the machine learning reached a mean (±SE) detection sensitivity of 59 ± 3% with high resolution images. The resulting mean (±SE) litter density on Saudi Arabian shores of the Red Sea is of 0.12 ± 0.02 litter items m−2, distributed independently of the population density in the area around the sampling station. Instead, accumulation of litter depended on the exposure of the beach to the prevailing wind and litter composition differed between islands and the main shore, where recreational activities are the major source of anthropogenic debris.