Seaswarm: MIT’s Fleet of Oil Spill Cleaning Robots
Geeks for the Gulf, or what paper towels have to do with nanotechnology.
By Maria Popova
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is easily the biggest environmental disaster of our time, bespeaking not only our capacity to do harm but also our inability to intercept the very harm we’ve inflicted. Since April 20, close to 200 million barrels of crude oil gushed into the Gulf, devastating the region’s ecosystem and economy. The world’s leading scientists, engineers and innovators failed to respond efficiently, offering no fix for nearly three months. Even though the leak was finally stopped on July 15, only 3% of the spill has been removed from the ocean and the remainder poses serious ecological risks, with no viable cleanup solution to date.
Enter seaswarm — a potentially gamechanging fleet of low-cost oil absorbing robots from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab.
The small, inexpensive, self-organizing skimmer operates autonomously and rolls out over the surface of the ocean, much like a paper towel soaking up the spill. It uses a breakthrough nanotechnology developed at MIT to separate the oil from the water and process it on-site. The nanofabric can be reused, enabling a constant cleanup process as the fleet of robots communicate and propel themselves across the ocean collecting oil.
The units are powered by solar cells and use a touch of biomimicry to mimic swarm behavior via GPS, ensuring even distribution across the spill site.
According to MIT, 5000* seaswarm robots operating continuously for a month will be enough to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill. And as far as we’re concerned, a promise of this magnitude coming from the world’s most reputable innovation hub should be sending governments and philanthropists alike running for their checkbooks to make this happen, stat.
*UPDATE: The article originally stated 500, not 5000. We’ve fixed the typo thanks to commenter Helio Centric below, who kindly (!) pointed it out.
Published August 26, 2010