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Smart Swimming Robots Swarm To Slurp-up Oil Spills

August 30, 2010

MIT Intros Brilliant New Tech to Help Clean-up Oil

A lot of what has been R&D’d in MIT Robotic & AI labs over the last 20 years has been blue-sky research, like Cog, which has yet to produce little practical real-world value. But now the below press release announces a new tech that uses nanotech, robotics, solar power and intelligent collaborative autonomous behavior to put advanced technology to useful work.

Robots already do clean-up jobs people can’t or won’t do, nasty and tedious tasks like sweeping the floorscrubbing pools and cleaning the cat box. Soon robots will be cleaning our waterways. Robots Do Your Duty!

MIT researchers unveil autonomous oil-absorbing robot

Robot could absorb up to 20 times its own weight in oil

For immediate release: August 25, 2010
Contact: Jen Hirsch – MIT News Office

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Using a cutting edge nanotechnology, researchers at MIT have created a robotic prototype that could autonomously navigate the surface of the ocean to collect surface oil and process it on site.

The system, called Seaswarm, is a fleet of vehicles that may make cleaning up future oil spills both less expensive and more efficient than current skimming methods. MIT’s Senseable City Lab will unveil the first Seaswarm prototype at the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion on Saturday, August 28. The Venice Biennale is an international art, music and architecture festival whose current theme addresses how nanotechnology will change the way we live in 2050. Read full release…

ShamWow, Hungry Robots Lap Up Floating Oil Slick -Yum!


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 the photovoltaic-covered ‘head’ maximized exposure to the sun. Image courtesy of the Senseable City Lab

By autonomously navigating the water’s surface, Seaswarm proposes a new system for ocean-skimming and oil removal.
Video: Senseable City Lab

The Seaswarm robot uses a conveyor belt covered with a thin nanowire mesh to absorb oil. The fabric, developed by MIT Visiting Associate Professor Francesco Stellacci, and previously featured in a paper published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in oil while repelling water. By heating up the material, the oil can be removed and burnt locally and the nanofabric can be reused.

“We envisioned something that would move as a ‘rolling carpet’ along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill,” said Senseable City Lab Associate Director Assaf Biderman. “This led to the design of a novel marine vehicle: a simple and lightweight conveyor belt that rolls on the surface of the ocean, adjusting to the waves.”

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. Read full release…

The BP Gulf oil disaster won’t be the last spill. We will need to drill the seas for black gold for the foreseeable future. Now we will have robot workers ready to dive in and do the dirty work.

It’s good to see intelligent design and advanced engineering being put to practical use by one of the world’s preeminent research labs. Nice job MIT and hats-off to the brilliant folks at Senseable City Lab.

Now the question is what to give the robots when they get a stomach ache? A bromide mixture of Tums and WD-40 perhaps…

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