Imagine if, after the next Deepwater-esque oil spill, we simply deployed a fleet of inflatable sailboats, equipped with oil-sucking booms, that would autonomously sail to the spill and soak up the oil. Or, if we need accurate data about radiation in the water outside another power plant approaching meltdown, we just sent in our fleet of boats, because we don't feel bad about submitting our robot slaves to radiation. That's the vision of the Protei project. Its creator, Cesar Herada--formerly of Ushahidi and MIT's Sensable City Lab--hopes it will soon be sailing the ocean, cleaning up our messes for us.
In the Gulf, the "open-source sailing drone's" detachable boom could collect 2 tons of oil on each trip (and imagine that multiplied for an entire fleet..). But that's just the beginning. The boats can be retrofitted to deal with any environmental disaster at sea where it's difficult or dangerous to send human workers: The original vision--pre-Deepwater--was for the boats to head the Pacific Gyre and pick up trash in nets, because it seems that no human is ever going to lift a finger to clean it up.
Right now, the current version of Protei needs to be controlled from shore, but the vision is of thousands of Protei ships, controlled by a swarm algorithms and using GPS data, attacking environmental disasters. Herada even has picked up on the latest fads, and has an eye toward game-ifying environmental clean-up by giving control of individual Proteis to computer users around the world and having them sail the boats to spills. You can watch Herada talk about his thinking and design process in this video:
While things in the ocean move downwind, the genius of Protei's design is that it can tack into the wind without losing power, using a front rudder. It would start at the end of the oil spill and work upwards as the oil was blown toward it.
Right now, Herada is working on a prototype at full size so he can begin testing and then manufacturing. The project is on KickStarter (only three days left!) to help pay for the next iteration and further testing. Bonus: Protei is entirely open source, so you can take the designs and make your own boat--for evil, even, if you want--or help Herada make new versions of the original with ideas. And, because it's requisite when talking about interesting Gulf Spill clean-up innovations, here is a mention of Kevin Costner and/or Waterworld.
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