MIT Invents a Swarm of Sea-Skimming, Oil-Collecting Robots

By Andrew Moseman | August 27, 2010 10:25 am

swarmbotEarlier this week, DISCOVER brought you oil-cleaning bacteria. Today, we bring you oil-cleaning bots.

This weekend in watery Venice, Italy, MIT scientists will demonstrate a creation called Seaswarm, a fleet of autonomous swimming bots intended to skim the water’s surface; each bot would drag a sort of mesh net to collect the crude sitting there. According to their creators, the machines will be able to find oil on their own and talk to one another to compute the most efficient way to tidy it up.

The Seaswarm robots, which were developed by a team from MIT’s Senseable City Lab, look like a treadmill conveyor belt that’s been attached to an ice cooler. The conveyor belt piece of the system floats on the surface of the ocean. As it turns, the belt propels the robot forward and lifts oil off the water with the help of a nanomaterial that’s engineered to attract oil and repel water [CNN].

The bots’ belts can hold 20 times their own weight in oil, the MIT scientists say. And once the belts have collected to capacity, the machines can exact the oil back out it the head—that yellow part—where it can be burned off.

The Seaswarm robot, which is 16 feet long and seven feet wide, uses two square meters of solar panels for self-propulsion. With just 100 watts, the equivalent of one household light bulb, it could potentially clean continuously for weeks [MSNBC].

The researchers say they plan to enter their fleet of bots into the X-Prize Foundation’s million-dollar contest for the best way to clean up an oil spill, inspired by the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The Seaswarm’s creators say that a fleet of 5,000 bots like theirs could tackle a spill like BP’s in about a month—at least what’s on the surface, anyway. For massive wandering undersea plumes of oil, thankfully we have those bacteria.

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Oil-Eating Bacteria Have Started to Clean the Deepwater Horizon Spill
80beats: Next from X Prize: An Award for Cleaning up BP’s Oil Spill?
80beats: Scientists Find 22-Mile-Long Oily Plume Drifting in the Gulf of Mexico
80beats: BP to Kevin Costner: We’ll Take 32 of Your Oil Clean-up Machines

Image: MIT Senseable City Lab

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Rhacodactylus

    This might be the best news I’ve heard this week, amazing!

  • nick

    And if these work, we wont need any dispersants to make all that undersea stealth oil.

  • Le Spaz dArgent

    I’ll feel better about it when they figure out a way to deal with the collected oil other than burning it off, but this is a start. One good idea begets another. Or so I hope.

  • Paul Rogers

    would it not be better to collect it that to burn it off, not like we are over stocked with oil, we can aford to waste it.

  • Just some thoughts

    When there is a disaster that would require these bots to be used, the idea is to keep them working as much as possible, and as long as possible. If the oil is collected instead of burned, it would have to brought to a storage unit and off loaded which would require the bot to be out of commission for ever how long the offloading takes. Then the offloaded crude oil would still have to be processed at a refining facility. The refinaning facilities are often running at capacity because there are not enough of them so this again could slow the process.

    As stated, the bots can only get to the floating oil. The recent disaster produced a lot of oil that is more dense than water and therefore sank or did not make it to the surface,, The dispersents used only impacted a percentage of the oil. They need to ctreate an underwater bot that can do the same thing but at depth or even under water and work with the bots on the surface to minimize the use of dispersents.

  • rabidmob

    @5: Given that the robots require solar power, they’re unlikely to be successful underwater.

  • Tyrone Taylor

    TWTF says:

    rabidmob. in response to your statement. The robots could still use solar power if the
    unit is underwater by having the solar cells float on top of the water and energy
    supplying wire or connector sending power underwater. A self rewinding connector
    that could be extended or contracted to and from the solar panel, shortening or
    lengthening, the wire.

  • chrisitan louboutin

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  • Jorge


    I’m doing a research on water pollution for school.

    Thanks for sharing those info, I will for sure check other pages, there are so many!



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