Getting oil out of water isn’t that hard, on principle. What is hard is getting a huge amount of oil out of an even huger amount of water. If you think about it, this is really a perfect task for a swarm of robots, since it’s simple and repeatable and just needs to be done over and over (and over and over and over) again. With this in mind, MIT’s Senseable City Lab has created Seaswarm, a swarm of networked oil spill cleanup robots:
Seaswarm is designed to be simple, cheap, and efficient. To collect oil, the robots use a wide belt covered in a special hydrophobic nanofabric (about the consistency of a paper towel) that sucks 20 times its own weight in oil (and other pollutants) out of water. The belt moves around like a treadmill, which passes the befouled nanofabric back to be cleaned while simultaneously propelling the robot forward. The video talks about heat being used to separate oil from the nanofiber, while the description on the Seaswarm website makes it seems like the oil is squeezed out using rollers… Whatever floats your robot, I guess.
What I’m not too sure about is where all of that captured oil goes. Using their solar panels for power the bots can collect for several weeks at a time, and the more oil they collect, the heavier they’ll get, and the more energy it’ll take to keep them moving. The website does mention that the oil will be ‘digested,’ which I assume implies microbes, but they’ll either have to collect oil very slowly or have some wicked crazy hungry bugs to be able to get around the problem.
Seaswarm is designed from the water up to utilize swarm behaviors. To combat a spill the size of the recent one in the gulf, about 5000 fully autonomous Seaswarm units would cooperate for a month, using GPS and WiFi to organize themselves for most efficient coverage. And of course, you get all the usual swarm benefits of scalability, adaptability, and robustness.
While Seaswarm as a whole is currently just a concept, they have built an actual working prototype (in the pic above), which was just tested out on the Charles river in Boston, I guess because the designers figured they’d teach the robot some humility when it comes to pollution clean-up.
[ Seaswarm ]