Robots set to battle oil spills

A maverick inventor has plans to clean up the sea using robots

Inspired by the devastating after effects of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer has put forward his solution to repairing the damage caused by similar disasters.

Cesar Harada’s Protei project is an attempt to address the problems of cleaning up oil following an event like the Gulf Of Mexico oil spill, in which 11 workers were killed and another 17 injured when methane gas from the BP well shot up out of the drill column and caught fire, creating one of the worst environmental catastrophes in US history.

As the clean up effort continues nearly a year later, Harada has a radical proposal to help battle future spills. The Protei project, named after Proteus the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon, aims to launch a fleet of small robots, each powered by sail and dragging a long tail of absorbent material that will travel across the flow of crude oil, halting it in its tracks. 

The prototype has an articulated hull that allows it to make better use of available windpower and travel in a serpentine path that has been designed to bring the tail into contact with the oil. 

Although it is still in its very early stages, Herada, who left his MIT job to work on Protei full time, says that they are already planning other versions including “Protei designed for the North Pacific plastic garbage patch, for dealing with heavy metals in coastal areas and even toxic substances in urban waterways.”