MIT has created a robotic prototype that could autonomously navigate the surface of the ocean to collect surface oil and process it on site.
The system, called Seaswarm, is a fleet of vehicles that may make cleaning up future oil spills both less expensive and more efficient than current skimming methods. The researchers have developed two models of the SeaSwarm: one that burns the oil it collects and another that dispatches units to dump their tanks into a floating reservoir.
The robot is 16 feet long by 7 feet wide and can gather up to 20 times its weight in oil. The idea is to send thousands of similar devices to clean up a “burgeoning surface spill” very quickly. Another perk of SeaSwarm is that using the flock of robots eliminates the need for human and equipment coordination in a large-scale cleanup effort.
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, and previously featured in a paper published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, can absorb up to twenty 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 uses two square meters of solar panels for self-propulsion. With just 100 watts, the equivalent of one household light bulb, it could potentially clean continuously for weeks.