"We believe that the efficiency and autonomy of these vehicles will make cleaning up future spills faster, safer and ultimately more successful," said Assaf Biderman, associate director of the Senseable City Lab and a member of the Seaswarm team.
Currently, oil skimmers usually need to be attached to large fuel-intensive ships, and they have to go ashore for maintenance several times a month. Plus, Biderman said, oil skimmers being used today have not had a design update in decades.
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.
"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," Biderman said. "The oil goes into the head."
According to the lab, one vehicle has the potential to run for weeks on only 100 watts. One robot has the capacity to remove several gallons per hour, the lab said, and will come with a price tag between $10,000 and $20,000. The robot is also equipped with GPS and wireless communications so that it can convey its coordinates to other robots. If needed, humans could also operate one using a remote control.