PLAN 77: Article
A Swarm Of Robots To Clean Up Oil Spills

A New Idea from the Senseable City Lab

Researchers in SA+P’s Senseable City Lab have created a prototype robot for a system they call Seaswarm – a fleet of vehicles that could make cleaning up future oil spills, like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, both less expensive and more efficient than current skimming methods. The researchers estimate that a fleet of 5000 Seaswarm robots would be able to clean a spill the size of the Gulf of Mexico in one month.

Unveiled at the Venice Biennale's Italian Pavilion in August, the Seaswarm robot is comprised of a head and a conveyor belt covered with a thin nanowire mesh that can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in oil while repelling water. Sixteen feet long and seven feet wide, the robot uses solar panels for self-propulsion; with just 100 watts, the equivalent of one household light bulb, it could potentially clean continuously for weeks.

The vehicle works rather like a rolling carpet riding over the waves. Stretched across rollers, the belt propels the unit through the water while skimming its surface, then cycles through the vehicle’s head where the oil is heated to separate it from the mesh. The belt then rotates back into the water to collect more oil. In one design, the robots would burn the oil on the spot so they can continue working uninterrupted. Another design would have the robots occasionally break away to deposit their oil in large floating reservoirs from which tankers could collect it later for reuse.

Intended to work as a fleet or ‘swarm’ of vehicles, the robots would coordinate their work through GPS and WiFi, creating an organized system for collection that can work continuously without human support. When deployed, the group would find the outer edges of an oil spill and work its way into the center, coordinating the cleanup with minimal human interference. Thousands of such devices could quickly form ‘teams’ to tackle a spill and because they are smaller than current ocean-skimming technologies, they could navigate hard to reach places like estuaries and coastlines.

Because the oil is processed locally the robots don’t need to make repeated trips back to shore for maintenance, as do traditional skimmers. And because the conveyor belt is so stable – it adheres to the surface of the water, so it cannot capsize – the robot can work under extreme conditions and rough weather. Traditional oil skimmers, attached to large boats, are hampered by severe weather. They also require an enormous amount of equipment and human coordination.

Produced in large numbers, each unit could cost about $20K, meaning a leak on the scale of the BP spill could be contained for $100M to $200M. According to project leader Assaf Biderman, the device will be ready to deal with oil spills in about a year.

The team plans to enter their design into the X-Prize’s $1M oil-cleanup competition; the award is given to the team that can most efficiently collect surface oil with the highest recovery rate. To see a video of the robot in action, visit senseable.mit.edu.

The members of Senseable’s Seaswarm team include Luigi Farrauto (Team Leader), Adam Pruden, Carnaven Chiu, Diego Malinoff, Malima Wolf, David Anderson, Sey Min, Rex Britter, Lindsey Hoshaw, Jennifer Dunnam, David Lee, Dietmar Offenhuber, Jan Kokol, Phil Salesses, Matthew Kai Johnson Roberson, Assaf Biderman and Carlo Ratti. The installation at the Venice Biennale was developed in collaboration with Walter Nicolino, Giovanni de Niederhausern, Samuel Colle Dominguez Maldonado, Andrea Cassi, Alberto Bottero and Filipa Carvalho who are part of Walter Nicolino and Carlo Ratti’s architecture office, Carlorattiassociati, in Torino, Italy.