To Fight Oil Spills, An Open-Source Swarm of Robotic Sailboats (Video)

Ask anyone who lives in the Gulf or the Niger Delta: oil spills are very nasty, and they don't clean themselves up. Chemical dispersants can make spills worse. And deploying hundreds of people in boats to run the clean-up presents a host of health hazards. After the BP disaster last year, those challenges led Cesar Harada, a design-and-technology polymath, to another solution: swarms of autonomous sailboat drones armed with sensors, trawling the water for oil. If their designs were open-source, anyone from Nigeria to Louisiana could adopt them as needed. The result is Protei.Named in part for the son of Poseidon, it's an autonomous sailboat that pulls an absorber, mopping up oil slicks without the need for large crews or night time breaks. The boat has been built through a rigorous, iterative, and open hardware process. Last month, Harada and his team were putting the finishing touches on their most recent prototype; Motherboard made a film about the process, as part of its new series "Upgrade,"; watch it above.

I spend much of my time these days at Motherboard, where I've been editing a great group of writers and producing films focused on technology and culture and the various human faces of the future. This video is the first installment in "Upgrade," a new show about world-changing designers and engineers who are innovating really interesting solutions to serious challenges, outside of the mainstream; Protei stood out as elegant proof that big innovations can come out of left field.

Robots have already played a significant role in cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf, scanning the ocean underwater and managing the capping process. They haven't been foolproof, of course; one was blamed for losing billions of gallons of oil. But like many technologies, the potential for unmanned vehicles in helping environmental clean-ups are giving drones a promising reputation beyond their military one. Robots were used to assess damage at the Fukashima Daiichi plant, and new swarm robots are being designed for sniffing out chemical leaks and sealing them.

On top of the reduced costs of clean-up that come with autonomous clean-up, open source design allows projects like Protei to be cheaper and go farther. Working without the help of big investors or institutions is not an easy prospect: without a giant budget, Protei has relied in part on fans to help fund it, through sites like Kickstarter. Contests like the X-Prize can also be helpful to smaller, open-source designers. This week, the contest awarded $1 million to tiny company that designed a powerful oil skimming tool useful for small oil spills.

After their sixth prototype, which can be seen in the video above, the team is going strong, and focusing on the Gulf; Harada recently left MIT and set up shop in New Orleans. But it is in places like Niger Delta - in the midst of a monster 30-year clean-up of a slick that each year is estimated to grow by the size of the total BP spill - where projects like Protei may prove the most valuable.

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Tags: Oil | Oil Spill