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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Seaswarm - a fleet of low-cost oil absorbing robots

Photo: MIT Senseable City Lab
Researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab have developed a new robot that by autonomously navigating the water’s surface remove oil on ocean surface. The robot called Seaswarm uses a photovoltaic powered conveyor belt made of a thin nanowire mesh to propel itself and collect oil. The nanomaterial, patented at MIT, can absorb up to 20 times its weight in oil. The flexible conveyor belt softly rolls over the ocean’s surface, absorbing oil while deflecting water because of its hydrophobic properties. The first Seaswarm prototype was tested in the Charles River in mid-August 2010. The vehicle’s flexible conveyor belt easily adapted to surface waves and succesfully propelled itself through the water. MIT researchers estimate that a fleet of 5,000 Seaswarm robots would be able to clean a spill the size of the gulf in one month. The team has future plans to enter their design into the X-Prize’s $1 million oil-cleanup competition. The award is given to the team that can most efficiently collect surface oil with the highest recovery rate. 
Seaswarm is intended to work as a fleet, or “swarm” of vehicles, which communicate their location through GPS and WiFi in order to create an organized system for collection that can work continuously without human support. Because they are smaller than commercial skimmers attached to large fishing vessels, they are able to navigate hard to reach places like estuaries and coast lines. Seaswarm works by detecting the edge of a spill and moving inward until it has removed the oil from a single site before joining other vehicles that are still cleaning. Oil is "digested" locally so that Seaswarm does not need to make repeated trips back to shore, which would dramatically slow collection time. 





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