Over 800 skimmers were deployed in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010 to help clean up the Deepwater Horizon leak; however, it is estimated that these skimmers collected only three percent of the surface oil. Researchers at MIT have devised a system, called Seaswarm, consisting of a fleet of vehicles that may make cleaning up future oil spills both less expensive and more efficient than current skimming methods. A robotic prototype created by the researchers could autonomously navigate the ocean surface using cutting edge nanotechnology to collect surface oil and process it on site.

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, 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 Assaf Biderman, Lab Associate Director of MIT’s Senseable City. “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 (4.9 x 2m), uses two square meters (21.5 square feet) of solar panels for self-propulsion. Unlike traditional skimmers that are attached to large vessels and need to constantly return to the shore for maintenance, the Seaswarm robot running on just 100 watts, the equivalent of one household light bulb, could potentially clean continuously for weeks.

“Unlike traditional skimmers, Seaswarm is based on a system of small, autonomous units that behave like a swarm and 'digest' the oil locally while working around the clock without human intervention,” explained Senseable City Lab Director Carlo Ratti.

Swarming to the idea

Using swarm behavior, the units will use wireless communication and GPS and manage their coordinates and ensure an even distribution over a spill site. By detecting the edge of a spill and moving inward, a single vehicle could clean an entire site autonomously or engage other vehicles for faster cleaning.

“We hope that giant oil spills such as the Deepwater Horizon incident will not occur in the future, however, small oil leaks happen constantly in off shore drilling,” Ratti said. “The brief we gave ourselves was to design a simple, inexpensive cleaning system to address this problem.”

The 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 US$1 million oil-cleanup competition. The award is given to the team that can most efficiently collect surface oil with the highest recovery rate.

Senseable City Lab’s initial Seaswarm prototype will be unveiled at the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion on Saturday, August 28. Visitors will be able to interact with the prototype and view a video on how the vehicle was constructed and how it operates. The Venice Biennale runs from August 29 to November 21, 2010.