Images via SENSEableCity
MIT's Sensable City Lab directo Carlo Ratti and associate director Assaf Biderman have come up with the SeaSwarm, a robot that uses nanofibers to absorb 20 times its weight in oil, and their hope is that it can be developed into a viable solution for cleaning up the Gulf oil disaster. The 7-foot-wide robots sport at 16-foot-long conveyor belt of paper-like nanofibers that absorb the oil, and are rotated through the machine where the oil is cleaned off. Skimming the surface of the water and powered by sunlight, the robot can continually collect oil. They estimate that a fleet of these robots could clean up a spill in a matter of months. The pair is presenting the concept as an entry for the X Prize for top ideas on cleaning the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. According to their website, "Each Seaswarm robot is comprised of a head, which is covered by a layer of photovoltaic cells, and a nanowire covered conveyor belt. The photovoltaic cells generate enough electricity to keep the fleet moving for several weeks and provide the energy to propel the vehicles forward. As the head moves through the water the conveyor belt constantly rotates and sucks up pollution. The nanowire-covered belt is then compressed to remove the oil. As the clean part of the belt comes out of the head it immediately begins absorbing oil, making the collection process seamless and efficient."
It sounds like an ideal solution, as long as the weather stays clear.
Additionally, the robots can work in unison, communicating with one another to coordinate oil collection. That way they can stay focused on one slick, rather than skimming all over kingdom come. And they'll even work in estuaries.
New York Times reports, "A robotic S.W.A.T. team 5,000 to 10,000 units strong, responding to real-time satellite data about the presence of oil, could lap up a surface spill like BP's Macondo spill within a month, the researchers said. In one design, Mr. Ratti explained by e-mail, the devices burn the oil they collect, so they can continue working uninterrupted. An alternative design, he said, would have individual robots occasionally breaking away to deposit their oil in large, GPS-tagged floating reservoirs. A tanker could come and fetch the oil later."
If it wins the X-Prize Foundation's competition, they could have enough money to get a handful sizeable handful of the robots -- estimated to cost around $20,000 each to manufacture -- onto the ocean for testing.
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