Seaswarm: we can clean up the Gulf in a month

Want to clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in one month? Seaswarm says it can be done with 5000 floating robots.

As the name implies, the project uses swarm robotics. Each unit draws power from the sun, and drags around a conveyor belt of oil absorbent nanofabric that doesn’t get wet in water. Once the fabric is saturated with crude it can be removed using heat; not a task the swarm can do by itself. But get this: after separating oil from nanofabric both can be used again. That means you get the environmental benefit of cleaning up the Gulf, not throwing away your collection medium, and the oil is once again a usable commodity. Sounds like a lot of high promises, but take a look at the video after the break and decide for yourself.

[via BotJunkie]

Comments

  1. Sgt McBeast says:

    Now if they would only sell kits of the robot to personalize and modify (without changing original function). Then we could track our own gulf cleaners.

  2. CutThroughStuffGuy says:

    I remain highly skeptical of the practicalities of this. The theory seems to make sense at first glance but the practical difficulties of this seem to have been glossed over more than perhaps should be.

  3. Mickgoth says:

    looks promising, could be a great help now and far into the future!
    lets hope someone throws enough money at it :)

  4. Reggie says:

    why bother with making 5000 little skimmers when you could fit a rolling conveyor belt version of the nanofabric to the bottom of a conventional skimmer? it can then be run through a heating process to remove the oil as its being turned.

    You’re then pulling as much oil as possible, you don’t have to waste energy sending the little skimmer out to collect oil then back to the cleaning vessel.

    A conventional skimmer with this tech will cover a much bigger area so less chance of missing bits.

  5. Alex says:

    Yeah, I remain skeptical. That’s a pretty damn bold claim, without much to back it up. Maybe they’ve done a lot more than what you can see on their website, but I’m not convinced.

  6. Alex says:

    Not to mention the fact that it’s being unveiled at an art show. :|

  7. Hacksaw says:

    If they really wanted to clean it up fast they would have used straw.It has all the benefits of this thing with the added benefit of being incredibly cheap.

  8. Me says:

    I am not affected by oil in the gulf, I didn’t even care whether there is oil inside or not. But if there is what do you do with your robots once they’ve finished cleaning the gulf? Throw away?

    After all, sucking oil out of water isn’t that needed in the world elsewhere.

  9. Pouncer says:

    Reggie if they did it your way they wouldn’t be able to sell the government, or bp 5000 of them. Even though your suggestion makes more sense.

    It’s hard to imagine a business in it for the eco system as a top priority when they’re proposing production/sales numbers in the thousands.

  10. Tom133t says:

    What about the underwater plumes of oil? Only a small fraction of the oil spill is on the surface.

    And I imagine these things would get stolen pretty quickly.

  11. I hate to break it to you, but most of the oil is not on the surface. Trying to clean up the Gulf by skimming is like trying to take the soap out of your dishwater by skimming the suds off the top — your goldfish will still croak in it afterward.

  12. chemik says:

    Looking at the surface area of each individual unit, wouldn’t the conveyor belt be saturated with oil after… oh, say.. 3 minutes? Then that unit is useless until it is picked up out of the gulf, taken apart, processed, put back together, and dropped back in the gulf. Also, from the build quality and considering the gulf with hurricane season and sizable waves, I think we’d up with oil-covered SeaSwarms washing up on the shores, with spare parts being found inside the stomachs of marine life…

    I don’t think they took into account such time and logistics… seems like they just took a time of absorption for an amount of oil into the fabric and extrapolated it out to a month.

    I’d say it’d be best retrofit the ships we already have – they have speed and lots of power available. Build something more than just the nets they use now, perhaps a lot of the nanofabric, and then pull it in with the winches and wring it out… wash, rinse, repeat. Could be implemented much faster, and all that is needed is some sort of pasta roller like machine to heat it and extract the oil.

  13. Mirrah says:

    Since when are you americans started caring about the environment?
    How much oil can one store? It sounds to me that you would have to go around and keep collecting the oil these collected.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Why not just make tarps out of the nanomaterial and drag those behind small fishing vessels? Then you could probably weigh one end down and potentially get some of the oil under the surface.

    The concept is there, but the execution sounds more eco-hipster than actual solution. Only a little bit of the oil is actually on the surface, and these robots clearly aren’t designed to handle that.

    What happens when the solar panels get covered in splashed-up oil or resting marine birds? Have they tried this nanomaterial in salt water? How long is it going to take to manufacture all these robots? How “inexpensive” are they, really? Do they have enough propulsion power to cope with waves and currents?

    I’d like to see more in-depth information about the nanofabric. It seems like a more viable solution on its own than a fleet of small fragile robots.

  15. JayDee says:

    Seeing how well BP has handled this mess so far, I’m not sure that I would want their ships with oil soaked conveyor belts and an onboard heat source sitting in the gulf either. We have oil in the gulf right now. Flaming ships filled with oil in the gulf doesn’t sound any more appealing.

  16. onlinepharmacy says:

    lol america

  17. Patrick (not the right-wing one) says:

    They should really suspend huge sheets of the nanomaterial within the underwater plumes.

  18. rain says:

    hahahaha very funny…

    will it float after it pick 10lbs of oil????? unless it is way bigger and more powerfull like a ship…

    easy!!
    just nuke it.. it will burn off oil in a second!!!!!

  19. localroger says:

    Intralox Corp (one of our customers, and a much bigger company) recently built a prototype machine very similar to this. They use a plastic conveyor and squeegee the oil off into a holding tank. But the real problem appears to be the oil at depth, which may be hanging around and not coming up to the surface at all. Nobody really has any idea what to do about that (except to cross their fingers and hope it will be Raptured or something).

  20. Digitail says:

    I for one welcome our robot overlords

  21. Shellster says:

    Yes of course they can clean up the surface oil…there is none. The only oil we can find is in plumes significantly below the surface.

  22. Osgeld says:

    only 3 easy payments …

    really? I understand its suppose work as a swarm, but I dont see one, who is going to build this swarm, how long will it take, why cant a fleet bigass ships just drag a tarp of the stuff around

    sure we would be burning diesel, but its better than waiting a few years to mold plastic robot shells

  23. JB says:

    @rain: yes… nuke it from orbit… it’s the only way to be sure… :P

  24. Davo1111 says:

    >Why not just make tarps out of the nanomaterial and drag those behind small fishing vessels?

    Quoted for truth. Anyone can create a youtube video, lets see them actually produce this “nanotechnology” before talking it up.

  25. Mirrah says:

    How president obongo handled the bp crysis: 10/1

    Even if these could clean up like a small percent of the oil from the water the gov/bp wouldn’t buy it cause they don’t want to spend more money on this.

    So they just tossed all of it under the table. Put up a lot of false press releases/videos about how big cleanup efforts are going on and did nothing.

    I wonder if the stupid green peace and other animal protector organisations keep striking about this not like anyone would care about them either lol.

    Lets just spend billions on the space program and on the obongo families vacations. In change we cannot believe in anymore…

  26. Osgeld says:

    for the record the president tried to refocus the space program into something that wasnt just a giant money hole

    and I think its a good thing to not spend a few billion on “robots” (really why does anything with a motor on it qualify as a robot now) that are going to do at best minimal work even IF they were ever released as a swarm

  27. M4CGYV3R says:

    Besides the oil-eating bacteria, this is the best solution I’ve seen. Now if only they could find a way to automate the collection process by having them return to a ‘hive ship’.

    Forget SkyNet, it’s SeaNet we should be worried about!

  28. chris says:

    i agree with the idea of sticking to conveyor on a ship. then to oil could be heated off, and with a big enough ship, refined and used to power it.

    @Osgeld
    the president has wreaked the space program, not turned it into something good. if you mean exploring space is a waste of money, that’s your opinion.

  29. NoSon says:

    I don’t care how quickly their calculations say they can clean it up, they completely disregard the fact that the robots will most likely have to be cleaned every few hours. And the amount of oil buildup on the actual machine is just going to slow it way down.

  30. Osgeld says:

    no I think flushing piles of money to private contractors to work on a unclear/undefined/forever changing end product unwise

  31. Merrick says:

    The nano-fiber is promising, I do dig that idea. Practical use of the material with existing equipment is the most efficient way to handle this. I like the ideas people mentioned about it being a sunken mesh to collect oil under the surface. Also wouldn’t it be great if they could recycle the collected oil in a effort to fund the ordeal or at least reduce cost. Ha, BP we are selling you back your spilled oil…

  32. Dino Sawyer says:

    @osgeld

    You’re right. The president HAS refocused NASA.

    http://usgovinfo.about.com/b/2010/07/07/obama-tells-nasa-to-improve-muslim-relations.htm

    I’m not sure how this will help solve the problems associated with deep space travel, propulsion systems, communications satellites, space stations, and Earth/resource management. Then again, I’m only an engineer, while the president is a genius. Kinda like Kanye West.

    I wonder if he likes fish sticks?

  33. klaymen says:

    does this take into account the dispersants?

  34. truth says:

    Since when are you americans started caring about the environment?

    The U.S. is the only country on the planet right now which cares about the enviroment.

    Look at what crap-holes Asia/China and Europe are turning into. Guess who’ll get to clean that mess up? You think a bunch of selfish Europeans in BMWs will show up? LOL!

    Oh, and BP isn’t even an American company…

  35. Chuckt says:

    The waves would knock over the units making them ineffective.

  36. nullinvoid says:

    Don’t they know, all the gulf oil disappeared They think that the fish absorbed it, but they don’t contain unhealthy amounts.

  37. osgeld says:

    “”Oh, and BP isn’t even an American company…””

    wrong, its majority is owned by US companies (I dont like using “American” cause, and I hate to break this to ya, there are other countries in the America’s)

  38. Fogger says:

    Instead of 5000 small autonomous devices, why not just scale it up? Build larger devices that can collect oil both on the surface, and under water. And it could also heat and extract the oil into it’s own tanks that can then be pumped into ships when full. A larger device would be more seaworthy, and wouldn’t have to return to land to be processed.

    If oil producers worldwide had a couple of these each, they could easily take care of their own minor spills quickly. But when a major spill occurs, send as many of them as could be spared to where they’re needed.

    A great discussion, which was spoiled when..

    “Mirra” said

    “Since when are you americans started caring about the environment?”

    then “truth” said

    “The U.S. is the only country on the planet right now which cares about the enviroment.”

    and

    “Look at what crap-holes Asia/China and Europe are turning into. Guess who’ll get to clean that mess up? You think a bunch of selfish Europeans in BMWs will show up? LOL!”

    Could you possibly be any more ignorant? Unfortunately it’s people like you that give the US a bad reputation the world over that isn’t deserved. And to the people like “Mirra” that blindly criticise everyone from the US, you’re just as ignorant. Why do the most ignorant people in the world always feel the need to shout the loudest?

    This is hackaday! That kind of talk doesn’t belong here. Keep it civilised.

  39. Frogz says:

    anyone know what trawl netting is?
    make big bags of this stuff and drag them under ships at various heights, control it all autonomously by gps so the ships go in set patterns until the entire area has been went over a few times, and it has the added benfit of sardines(and other fish) that come prepackaged in oil!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trawling
    once a day, haul the net up and wring all the oil out into a: a collection bin or b: the gas tanks of the boat(although i doubt crude oil that has recently been collected is that flamable so just collect and dump in a set area when refueling)
    have like… 20-50 boats doing this with enough nets that they can operate, fill a net and exchange a dirty net for a clean 1 every few hours

  40. James says:

    “Look at what crap-holes Asia/China and Europe are turning into.”

    Curious statement. You are aware that there are many many small countries in Europe, and that the majority are fairly “clean and green”, especially in comparison with the US in general. Emissions per capita are massively lower, toxic waste disposal is fully regulated, so much so that in many countries the output from a basic domestic water turbine is classed as industrial waste and needs analysing to ensure it’s clean! Asia is a bit of a problem, I’ll admit.

    I’m just amazed that anyone in the US seeks to defend their position, maybe it’s a mutual lack of understanding of each other’s country.

    @Mirrah – good use of subtle racism.

  41. washing machine says:

    Skipping racist comments … off topic … rudeness … and the real oil (75%) at the bottom of the ocean :/

    This paticular Nanotechnology is not ready yet, when it will it will be way too expensive, even in 10 year – and nobody knows yet how to recycle it. The cost of a swarm if such expensive robots is out of the picture. Remote oil sensing isnt explained either, it is expensive sensing…

    The design of the ship is absolutely flawed, this vessel is not sea worthy at all, a large part of the swarm would disappear at the bottom of the ocean creating many irrecuperable highly toxic mini oil spills. The vessel is flexible and flat, a storm will just flap fold it on itself like a pancake. the energy necessary to move this flat soft object will be huge, it is not hydrodynamic at all…

    There are different textures of oil, sometimes micron-thin film, sometimes tarballs like rocks, can this conveyor take care of the variety of oils? It will get jammed and require incredible much maintenance, not even to mention the algae, fish, shrimp that will be fried in the process.

    Lastly, MIT says they want to re-use the oil that is collected on board as fulel to move the machine … Have you ever seen a refinery? Does it looks like a conveyor belt? Do you believe there is enough space in this yellow piece of crap to hold an entire refinery? If you know the refining process you know there is a huge amount of solid remains at the end (like asphalt) that this mini robots will be literaly stuck with. There is no information about the propeller and the power this machine will develop – it is a car without engine… ?

    This project has nothing to do with reality, these guys live in startrek, they are way too optimistic about :
    – cost and efficiency of nanotechnology
    – the fact that there are no waves nor currents in the ocean
    – maintenance and storage of oil
    – the refining process and handling of toxic sticky shit

    To me it feels like this project shouts : “we’re MIT, we are so clever, if you had given us the money, we’d have solved the problem in no time, you stupid” but if you look closely at the project, it doesnt make any sense … or worst, full of deliberate lie. Maybe these clever guys get millions of $ because they’re MIT, let’s see what they come up with … a machine that absorbs money… Clever huh?

  42. Greycode says:

    @James I guess the result is the same as someone coming into your home and saying, “Jeeze what a crap hole.” Undoubtedly you would probably be forced to defend yourself.

    I really love all of the countries that have all the waste recycled, zero “or even negative” emissions, and all of the energy is being created by a ten foot wind mill. I just beg to differ with you calling yourselves countries when you are really farms.

    A water turbine does not produce toxic waste, all you are doing is running fast water over metal blades, there are no toxic emissions from that. Your breathing creates more toxicity than that.

    @Osgeld, BP is still a British company. Twist all you wish, British Petroleum remains what it is. It is a multi-national corporation that has based it’s headquarters in the U.K. It has put shares on several stock exchanges, and those shares do not represent anything more than the value of the investment divided by the number of shares that are issued. The corporation is so large that it has corporations, those corporations are the ones being represented in the stock exchanges, NYSE, London Stock Exchange, and the Tokyo Stock Exchanges being the three largest, and there is a BP in all three of them. BP in the NYSE is probably going to have a majority of American holders because that is usually who the holders are. Not going to be a majority of American holders in the LSE, or the NEKKEI. Even if you were to hold the majority of American shares you are still not going to walk into BP and start giving orders.

  43. Blacksunshine says:

    LEts just skip the middle men. Lets just strap dollar bills to the hulls of ships and let that soak up the oil. I mean we’re throwing tons of money at it anyways. lets just do it more directly. skip all these silly bandaid soloutions.

  44. JAGAK says:

    You people crack me up like a bunch of parrots repeating what the person before you said… Wait a minute guys not all the oil is on top…. The government booo… lol americans etc etc all worthless tripe in a would be community of alleged intellectual, creative people.

    Kudos to washing machine and fogger for seeing this for what its worth and offering up something of value.

    Yea, the concept is flawed 5k little robots cleaning the ocean but the fabric itself if it works as well as claimed and is reusable brilliant.

    @osgeld “really why does anything with a motor on it qualify as a robot now”

    Either you didn’t read this / watch the video or you don’t understand the concept of swarm technology, the word autonomous or perhaps even the definition of robot.

    robot – a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, esp. one programmable by a computer.

    It’s not as though they threw a motor and some cloth in the ocean and called it a robot… every so often you have some good comments / useful info / facts but most of it is useless dribble.

    So yea scale it up, launch some diving robots that can deploy nets of the stuff… hell I bet sonar could be used to locate large pockets of submerged oil… Wait isn’t that how they locate the stuff in the first place?

  45. american says:

    British Petroleum screws up and I have to read comments about how stupid americans are.
    Gotta love this internet, all the people too scared to leave their homes, kids, etc… all grow big hairy balls and spout off garbage once they get behind a keyboard. Not one of you would say a word if confronted face to face.
    Grow up and act like adults! keep your childish comments where they belong, in your bedroom!

  46. hpavc says:

    instead of collecting oil you will be collecting bots it seems with the size of these.

    though it does have the word nano in it.

  47. Merricksdad says:

    Very interesting, but how does it handle storms, large waves…creatures hungry for robot flesh? These are issues the creators must consider.

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