A team of researchers at MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory have developed Seaswarm, a robot that autonomously navigates the water’s surface and uses nanofibers to absorb 20 times its weight in oil, which could be made into a viable solution for cleaning up the Gulf oil spill.
The first Seaswarm prototype was tested this month in the Charles River of Boston, MA. Seaswarm uses a photovoltaic powered conveyor belt made of a thin nanowire mesh - patented at MIT - to propel itself and collect oil. The flexible conveyor belt rolls over the ocean’s surface, absorbing oil while deflecting water because of its hydrophobic properties.
Seaswarm is intended to work as a fleet (or “swarm”) of vehicles, which communicate their location through GPS and WiFi in order to create an organized system for collection that can work continuously without human support. Because they are smaller than commercial skimmers attached to large fishing vessels, they are able to navigate hard to reach places like estuaries and coast lines.
Seaswarm detects the edge of a spill and moves inward until it has removed the oil from a single site, before joining other vehicles that are still cleaning. Oil is "digested" locally so that Seaswarm does not need to make repeated trips back to shore, which would slow collection time.
For more details, watch the video below: