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Earth Robotics Hardware

MIT Unveils Oil-Skimming Robot Swarm Prototype 123

destinyland writes "Today MIT reveals a swarm of autonomous floating robots that can digest an oil spill. The 16-foot robots drag a nanowire mesh that acts like a conveyor belt to soak up surface oil 'like paper towels soak up water,' absorbing 20 times its weight and then harmlessly 'digesting' the oil by burning it off. Powered by 21.5 square feet of solar panels, the 'Seaswarm' robots run on the power of a lightbulb, and with just 100 watts 'could potentially clean continuously for weeks' without human intervention, MIT announced. The swarm uses GPS data and communicates wirelessly to move as a coordinated group to 'corral, absorb and process' oil spills, and MIT researchers estimate that a fleet of 5,000 could clean up a gulf-sized spill within one month."
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MIT Unveils Oil-Skimming Robot Swarm Prototype

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  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Saturday August 28, 2010 @03:27PM (#33404798) Homepage

    OK, each unit sops up some oil, using "nanowires". Then what? The oil then has to be transferred to some collection boat. That part isn't implemented.

    A fleet of semi-autonomous skimmers that deliver oil to a collection ship or a shore station would be useful. Operations like that are risky for small boats, as are operations near shore, near rocks and reefs, and such. So it's a good robot application.

    The "nanowires" just sound like the usual hype from MIT's PR operation (which has gotten out of hand enough to be an embarrassment for MIT.)

  • by vadim_t ( 324782 ) on Saturday August 28, 2010 @03:37PM (#33404862) Homepage

    Solar is much simpler. You just need a panel and a battery.

    Burning oil is more complicated. You need an engine that can burn crude mixed with whatever it mixes with in the water (some rugged diesel engine maybe?), a pump, a tank to have the ability to move through clean water, an electric generator to power the circuitry, a battery as well (for starting the motor for instance). It's going to be heavy and complicated, more prone to failure, and harder to keep afloat. And definitely more expensive. And it'll still need to burn oil anyway, because it must collect more than it needs for itself (otherwise it wouldn't go anywhere), but that means the tank will become full at some point.

  • Re:Yeah! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <barbara@hudson.barbara-hudson@com> on Saturday August 28, 2010 @03:51PM (#33404918) Journal
    FTFA: []

    By heating up the material, the oil can be removed and burnt locally and the nanofabric can be reused.

    Notice the URL - it's MIT saying this, not someone mis-quoting them.

    Also, good luck with that during hurricane season.

    Additionally, bad math alert. To clean up 5 million barrels in 30 days with 5,000 units, each unit would have to pick up 33 barrels a day. 16'x7'= 112 square feet. A barrel is 42 gallons, and there are 7.5 gallons in a cubic foot. So, 33 barrels is 1,385 gallons, or 184.5 cubic feet. Your skimmer will be towing a chunk of oil-soaked nanofibres half a yard thick - you're not going to be making much headway dragging that with only 100 watts (1/8 horsepower).

    It might start out okay, but as you collect oil, it will get worse, so take that 1 month and make it a year.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 28, 2010 @03:54PM (#33404938)

    5000000 barrels and 5000 robots, that gives 1000 barrels for each robot and month??
    so in one day one single robot will take up approx 30 barrels: that is more than one barrel per hour
    day and night?
    Seems to me as some MIT miscalculation or am I missing something?

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