Protei Designs Sailing Robots to Clean the Sea

protei sailing robotIt is estimated that BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled 205 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Local fishermen and other cleanup workers suffered from the toxic oil and carcinogenic dispersants, but at best only 3% of this oil was ever recovered.  The absorbent booms were never designed for open water.  When Cesar Harada heard about this disaster, he quit his dream job at MIT and moved to New Orleans to find a better way to clean up these spills.  His inspiration combined ancient sailing technology with modern materials and robotics.  He used crowd-funded kickstarter loan to hire some engineers and founded  Harada released the designs under an OpenSource Hardware (OSHW) license so that others can learn, refine and share solutions.

The idea is simple, oil spills move downwind so by dragging the absorbant booms upwind, robots can capture oil more effectively.  A sailboat can use wind power to tack (zig zag) upwind in a pattern that is almost perfect for cleaning oil, but traditional sailboats don’t steer well when dragging a large object.  Herada found that moving the rudder forward reduced this problem but others experimented with an articulated boat which steers by bending like a fish.  One team found that this might make it possible for the boat to sail directly upwind without tacking.  Harada also theorized that such flexibility might make it move more efficiency through waves and eliminate two sources of turbulence as the keel and rudder are no longer separate from the hull.

Sailing robots needn’t be limited to oil recovery, they can also help us clean up plastic garbage or monitor radioactivity in our seas.

Sailing is one of this author’s personal pastimes and I happen to own an inflatable windsurfer.  One of Protei’s recent designs is also made of inflatable plastic with a water and sand ballasted keel.  Harada calls this monohull an “Ocean Blimp”, but to me it has more than a passing resemblance to a Portuguese Man-Of-War (relative of a jellyfish.)  This shows that our most advanced technology might eventually become something that both works with and resembles nature.

Protei image via

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3 thoughts on “Protei Designs Sailing Robots to Clean the Sea”

  1. Jenn says:

    lets start today with all the out of work fishermen just to skim the surface with the old nets.
    then tomorrow send out all war machines to fight the war on the environment, retool war ships into cleaning tools.
    after that we can put money in new and better places.
    but we can not wait….

  2. Brian Nitz says:

    Yes of course. But there are 30,000 oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. 27,000 of them are abandoned so even if “Mr. Fusion” comes along and kills our appetite for oil tomorrow morning, eventually one of these oil holes is going to leak. That fact that we were totally unprepared in 2010 is regrettable. When (not if) a big leak happens again, there will be no excuse for being so unprepared.

  3. JTR says:

    To clean up the ocean, first the sources of the pollution must be closed down, or the robot will only be treading water.

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