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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.

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

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]