Sailbots to Mop Up Oil Spills

Protei Testing

Protei_008b Testing from Cesar Harada on Vimeo.

One of the most shocking realizations from the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 was our inability to effectively and safely clean up after a major deep ocean spill. If the government is going to continue to issue permits to deepwater rigs, we need new technology fast.

BY TIM MALY, Wired Design
Enter Protei: an open source, shapeshifting, oil-spill-cleaning sailboat drone. Developed by a globally connected network of designers, engineers, tinkerers, and makers who are hell-bent on finding a better way to clean up the ocean, Protei kicked off just after the Deepwater Horizon accident.

“I was working at MIT as project leader developing technologies to clean up the oil spill using patented expensive technologies for a distant future,” says project coordinator Cesar Harada. “I decided to quit my dream job to develop an Open Hardware, affordable, and realist technology to clean up oil spills.”

Harada left MIT and headed to New Orleans, where he worked with The Louisiana Bucket Brigade to map the spill. Meanwhile, he began designing Protei.

Oil skimming is an old technology. It hasn’t been much improved since the 1990 Exxon Valdez spill, which prompted regulations that oil companies maintain emergency skimmer fleets.

Dumped oil mostly floats on sea water and drifts downwind, away from the spill. The challenges of cleanup are multitude: Weather conditions on the ocean do not lend themselves to careful skimming; the work is dangerous, exposing people to incredibly toxic materials; and it’s hard to separate oil from water completely, so a lot of the slick gets left behind.

Protei attempts to address these problems by creating an autonomous sailing vessel that pulls behind it a long, oil-absorbent boom. Without a human crew, the drone poses no safety threats. The idea is that you could set a swarm of the robot skiffs out to sea, on the downwind edge of the spill. As they tack back and forth against the wind, their tails would collect oil.

Protei’s bow rudder makes steering easy, even with a heavy tail, and the boat has a shape-shifting hull, which allows it to twist and bend like a fish. “Fish — and their shape-shifting bodies — existed long before humans, so we know we’re on the right track,” says Harada. But his greatest achievement, he says, is having developed a community around the project, which makes it advance much more quickly than an invention with a single author.

“If you are developing environmental technology, you want to make sure it is going to reach the greatest number at the lowest cost possible, as fast as possible,” he says.

via Wired

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