Co.Design

MIT Inventors Create Robot Swarm for Mopping Up Oil Spills [Video]

They really work! Think of them as robot maxi pads which might have cleaned the Gulf Oil Spill in weeks.

Forget skimmer ships, top kill, and any gibberish that came out of James Cameron's mouth: MIT researchers have invented a super-absorbent robot that can lap up oil faster than you can say Deepwater Horizon.

Crap, where were these guys a few months ago?

Seaswarm, as they call it, basically works like a maxi pad. A patented hydrophobic nanofabric devours as much as 20 times its own weight in oil without collecting water. To capture the oil, the nanofabric's draped over a conveyor belt that's then dispatched on the surface of the ocean like "a rolling carpet," to quote Assaf Biderman, associate director of MIT's Senseable City Lab. The robot's entirely autonomous; it swims along, powered by a pair of solar panels. Here's a film summing up the tech:

Senseable City Lab is unveiling the first prototype at the Venice Architecture Biennale on Saturday. The hope's to produce a whole fleet of Seaswarms that'll be able to attack oil spills like, yes, a swarm of bees.

Skeptics might wonder how they're different from the skimmers deployed on the Gulf this summer to trifling effect. (Some 800 vessels collected just 3 percent of the surface oil.) Unlike traditional skimmers, which are moored to larger vessels and have to return to shore frequently for tune-ups, Seaswarms can work 24/7 for weeks on end. (Researchers estimate that 5,000 Seaswarms working around the clock for a month would be able to scrub an area the size of the Gulf oil spill.) That's in many ways a testament to good design. Look how few parts there are? Maintenance on this thing's a cinch.

Apparently, the robot's cheap, too, which makes us wonder: Is it too good to be true? Maybe we're just cynical, but we have our reasons -- like this, this, this, and this.

[Images courtesy of MIT Senseable City Lab]

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2 Comments

  • Chrismc53

    Quite fantastic really, although I remain sceptical. Although I appreciate the robots are autonomous and can "work" 24/7, they will still be subject to maintenance and collection. 
    I don't deny that the "patented hydrophobic nanofabric" is able to adsorb 20x its own weight of oil, but the problem resides in the collection of this oil from the fibres after the robots have cleared a section of the oil spill.