Oil-collecting robot may reduce cost of future spills

Researchers at MIT have created a prototype robotic system that could autonomously navigate the surface of the ocean, collecting and processing any oil that it encounters.

The system, called Seaswarm, may make cleaning up future oil spills less expensive and more efficient than current skimming methods.

The Seaswarm robot uses a conveyor belt covered with a thin nanowire mesh to absorb oil. The fabric, developed by MIT visiting associate professor Francesco Stellacci, can absorb up to 20 times its own weight in oil, while repelling water. By heating up the material, the oil can be removed and burnt locally, and the nanofabric can be reused.

’We envisioned something that would move as a ’rolling carpet’ along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill,’ said Senseable City Lab Associate Director Assaf Biderman. ’This led to the design of a novel marine vehicle: a simple and lightweight conveyor belt that rolls on the surface of the ocean, adjusting to the waves.’

The Seaswarm robot, which is 16ft long and 7ft wide, uses 2m2 of solar panels for self propulsion. With just 100W, the equivalent of one household light bulb, it could potentially clean continuously for weeks.

Traditional skimmers are attached to large vessels and need to constantly return to the shore for maintenance. Over 800 skimmers were deployed in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010; however, it is estimated that these skimmers collected only three per cent of the surface oil.

’Unlike traditional skimmers, Seaswarm is based on a system of small, autonomous units that behave like a swarm and ’digest’ the oil locally while working around the clock without human intervention,’ explained Senseable City Lab director Carlo Ratti.

Using swarm behaviour, the units will use wireless communication and GPS to ensure an even distribution over a spill site. By detecting the edge of a spill and moving inward, a single vehicle could clean an entire site autonomously or engage other vehicles for faster cleaning.

MIT researchers estimate that a fleet of 5,000 Seaswarm robots would be able to clean a spill the size of the gulf in one month.

Senseable City Lab’s initial Seaswarm prototype will be unveiled at the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion on Saturday, 28 August. Visitors will be able to interact with the prototype and view a video on how the vehicle was constructed and how it operates. The Venice Biennale runs from 29 August to 21 November.