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A Swarm of Smart Oil-Skimmers?

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MIT has developed an autonomous robot that uses a conveyor belt of a nano-fabric to soak up surface oil. These self-navigating robots could operate 24/7 for weeks without human intervention. The first prototype was recently tested in the Charles River and gracefully adapted to surface waves as it powered itself using more than 20 square feet of solar panels.

MIT’s Senseable City Lab just unveiled this new device in Italy at the Venice Biennale- a festival of international art, music, and architecture with a current theme around nanotechnology’s place in the future.  The system has been dubbed Seaswarm and could process the oil onsite to avoid constant returns to shore for maintenance.  MIT’s own nanowire mesh rolls around on the surface of the water, absorbing up to twenty times its weight while repelling water.  MIT will also be submitting their solution to the X-Prize’s one-million-dollar oil-cleanup competition for the most efficient solution and highest oil-recovery rate.

Amazingly, this sixteen by seven-foot marine vessel operates on only 100 watts of power.  That’s approximately equal to a household light bulb’s power requirements. Small leaks often occur around a drilling operation, and having one of these on-hand would be an inexpensive solution.

More than 800 traditional skimmers were deployed into the Gulf of Mexico this summer.  Unfortunately, it is estimated that this fleet was only able to capture about three percent of the surface oil.  Using swarm behavior, GPS, and wireless communications to coordinate, these new units could spread themselves out evenly over an area, even detecting the edges of a spill and working inwards to clean it away.

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