A swarm of solar-powered robots may soon be brought in by scientists to clean up Gulf oil-type spills in a record time of 30 days.
The robots, named 'Seaswarm', are being developed at MIT and incorporate oil-absorbing nanomaterial created by MIT professor Francesco Stellacci.
The Seaswarm robot prototype is 16 feet long by 7 feet wide and weighs 35 pounds. Two square solar panels at the head propel the robot along the water's surface. As it moves, a thin and flexible conveyor belt covered in oil-absorbing nanofabric rotates, selectively mops up oil.
The researchers believe that a Seaswarm of between 5,000 and 10,000 autonomous robots working non-stop could cover a Gulf-sized surface area in a month's time.
"We say these vehicles are autonomous because they provide their own energy, propel themselves along the surface of the ocean and therefore we don't need humans to collect the oil," Discovery News quoted Biderman as saying.
According to the lab, one robot can run for weeks on only 100 watts with a capacity to remove several gallons per hour. They are also equipped with GPS and wireless communications to communicate with other robots. If needed, humans could also operate one using a remote control.
"Robotic strategies are intriguing, and they create further opportunity to consider responses in the future," said Ron Kendall at Texas Tech University.
But he does convey a little scepticism.
"Collecting oil is a pretty low-tech enterprise. If you want to deploy hundreds of expensive machines to do that, I'm not so sure that it will scale up," he said.
Instead, he suggests that an imperfect, albeit fast-working approach might make a bigger difference.