It’s the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Of the many terrible lessons learned from the event, perhaps the most tragic is theshocking inadequacy of current cleanup technology. Given how often we spill oil this is an urgent problem.
Enter Protei: an open source, shapeshifting, oil-spill-cleaning sailboat drone. Developed by a globally connected network of designers, engineers, tinkerers, and makers who are hell-bent on finding a better way to clean up the ocean, Protei kicked off just after the Deepwater Horizon accident.
“I was working at MIT as project leader developing technologies to clean up the oil spill using patented expensive technologies for a distant future,” says project coordinator Cesar Harada. “I decided to quit my dream job to develop an Open Hardware, affordable, and realist technology to clean up oil spills.”
Protei prototype v008 set sail in March.
Harada left MIT and headed to New Orleans, where he worked with The Louisiana Bucket Brigade to map the spill. Meanwhile, he began designing Protei.
Oil skimming is an old technology. It hasn’t been much improved since the 1990 Exxon Valdez spill, which prompted regulations that oil companies maintain emergency skimmer fleets.
Dumped oil mostly floats on sea water and drifts downwind, away from the spill. The challenges of cleanup are multitude: Weather conditions on the ocean do not lend themselves to careful skimming; the work is dangerous, exposing people to incredibly toxic materials; and it’s hard to separate oil from water completely, so a lot of the slick gets left behind.
Protei attempts to address these problems by creating an autonomous sailing vessel that pulls behind it a long, oil-absorbent boom. Without a human crew, the drone poses no safety threats. The idea is that you could set a swarm of the robot skiffs out to sea, on the downwind edge of the spill. As they tack back and forth against the wind, their tails would collect oil.
Protei’s bow rudder makes steering easy, even with a heavy tail, and the boat has a shape-shifting hull, which allows it to twist and bend like a fish. “Fish — and their shape-shifting bodies — existed long before humans, so we know we’re on the right track,” says Harada. But his greatest achievement, he says, is having developed a community around the project, which makes it advance much more quickly than an invention with a single author.
“If you are developing environmental technology, you want to make sure it is going to reach the greatest number at the lowest cost possible, as fast as possible,” he says.
An introduction to the Protei community.
The biggest barrier to solving technical problems with any project isn’t the pace of discovery, Harada says, but the requirement of keeping a tight hold on intellectual property that comes with receiving funding. So he dispensed with the idea of a traditional company and launched the project on Kickstarter with an open hardware license.
The community is documenting the shifting design process and every prototype it makes. At each step of the way, it offers its lessons to the world.
“Version after version, we keep improving the design and discovering new properties,” Harada says.
If successful, Protei could go well beyond oil spills. “We have several hundreds of millions of tons of plastic in the ocean to collect. We need distributed surface instrumentation to study disappearing corals reefs, monitor shrinking fisheries, measure radioactivity leaks and much more,” Harada says.
“Saying we are ‘motivated’ is a weak word.”
All images courtesy Protei