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An Autonomous Sailing Robot To Clean Up Oil Spills 62

Posted by Roblimo
from the sailing-without-human-help dept.
rDouglass writes "Protei is a low-cost, open-source oil collecting robot that autonomously sails upwind, intercepting oil sheens going downwind. This crowd sourced, open source hardware, collaboratively developed project could help prevent the tragedy of the next oil spill. Furthermore, it is a prime example of what people can do together when they collaborate, working together on the research and development, design, and funding. Licensed under the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) license guarantees that as many people in all parts of the world will benefit from this effort as possible."
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An Autonomous Sailing Robot To Clean Up Oil Spills

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  • by fred911 (83970) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @02:43PM (#35768990)

    .. are belong to us

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Whoever wrote that copy needs to learn how to use a hyphen.

  • by Yetihehe (971185)

    Licensed under the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) license guarantees that as many people in all parts of the world will benefit from this effort as possible.

    Or it guarantees that no one will make this in enough quantity, only 20 of them from 3 hackerspaces...

    • Re:OSHW (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Doc Ruby (173196) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @03:07PM (#35769164) Homepage Journal

      Unless oil drillers are required by law to pay someone for devices like this one. In that case, there'll be lots of people making them in quantity, especially without the intellectual "property" obstacles and costs.

      And if they're not required by law, it doesn't matter how closed or proprietary they are: oil driller will never spend a cent on them, no matter in whose interests (including their own) it would be.

      • Re:OSHW (Score:5, Informative)

        by mdfst13 (664665) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @09:51PM (#35771424)

        Devices (perhaps less energy efficient and certainly not as automated) like this already exist and were available during the oil spill crisis. The Dutch offered to loan some of their skimmer boats to the US early in the crisis. The US turned them down as not being efficient enough (<sarcasm>obviously, it's better to let the spill keep growing rather than skim out a mere 98% of the oil</sarcasm>). Once the spill had already spread, the US government then granted a waiver to allow the Dutch ships to be used.

        The article doesn't touch on the question of whether or not these particular devices would meet US environmental requirements. Even if they existed, it's not clear that the US government would have allowed them to be used in the early days of the crisis.

        Note that the delay made the existing devices less effective in a couple ways. First, they reduced the amount of time the skimmers could be used before the oil became too diffuse. Second, they would have been most effective at the beginning of the crisis when the oil was at its most localized. When working in an area that is 50% oil, it doesn't matter as much that they leave 2% contamination (or whatever the actual number is; I can't find a citation for the actual efficiency at the moment). That's still a removal of 96% of the oil. However, if there is only 4% oil, then leaving 2% is leaving 50% of the oil that was present.

        Example citation for the refusal of the Dutch help (based on a Google search): http://www.eagleworldnews.com/2010/06/15/obama-refuses-dutch-help-for-gulf-oil-crisis/ [eagleworldnews.com]

  • by rDouglass (1068738) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @02:57PM (#35769090) Homepage
    I pledged $150 to this project and look forward to wearing the Protei hoodie that they'll send me. I couldn't believe that it hadn't gotten more attention. I'm not affiliated with the project in any way, but I know that I'm going to weep with bitter joy when I see one of these skimming oil from an oil spill. I hated the feelings of helplessness and desperation that I hada when watching the tragedy of the Gulf spill. Supporting this project at least gives me something concrete to do which just may one day help keep our oceans clean.
    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      I pledged $150 to this project and look forward to wearing the Protei hoodie that they'll send me.

      Congratulations ; a positive contribution.

      I couldn't believe that it hadn't gotten more attention.

      It's news to me too, which annoys me more than a little as I work in the industry. But it doesn't particularly surprise me - the industry is notoriously discussion-of-risk averse.

      I'm not affiliated with the project in any way, but I know that I'm going to weep with bitter joy when I see one of these skimming oil f

  • by zill (1690130) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @02:57PM (#35769094)

    ...low-cost...open-source...crowd sourced... open source...collaboratively developed... collaborate, working together ...Licensed under the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) license

    It's like an infinite number of monkeys on typewriters collaborated by working together to crowd source this open-source summary.

    I think simply mentioning OSHW once is sufficient for the slashdot crowd, considering our familiarity [slashdot.org] with the topic [slashdot.org].

    • Yeah, you're mostly right. But it's easier for the indoctrinated to filter it out than it is for others to "pick up" on the significance of the fact. People have to be told, repeatedly, and in demonstrable terms, that open source is important. This sank in for me when I saw Richard Stallman speaking to a crowd of technology deciders in San Francisco. I was amazed that even the people who control budgets in the Valley don't "get" open source. So when I speak about OS projects, I really lay it on thick, to ma
    • It's like an infinite number of monkeys on typewriters collaborated by working together to crowd source this open-source summary.

      And one, that while invoking all the 'right' buzzwords, fail to make clear the key point - this project is largely vaporware. Yeah, they've made some cute models and a cool website... but the actual engineering accomplished in real world is roughly zero. They want to build a Concorde, but so far all they've demonstrated is a paper airplane.

  • Unsinkable (Score:4, Insightful)

    by seepho (1959226) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @02:59PM (#35769104)
    Haven't we learned by now not to call any sort of seafaring vessel unsinkable?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    It says oil, but can it be made to do plastic too? Or can it be modified to do plastic? Oil does disperse over time. Plastic does too, but plastic takes a lot more time. Birds can pass some oil. They choke on plastic (so do fish and whales). Oil breaks down faster than plastic. I'm just thinking of the 300 mile diameter toilet bowl of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I always dreamed of sailing the Pacific, but floating in a schmantzy boat through mile after mile of trash takes a lot of

    • Think about it. That's where these things will wind up floating dead if they are ever produced at all.

      BTW if you are sailing and competent you would stay in the trade winds and hence out of the patch.

    • by jbengt (874751)

      I always dreamed of sailing the Pacific, but floating in a schmantzy boat through mile after mile of trash takes a lot of the joy out of it.

      If you sailed through it, there's a decent chance you wouldn't notice it, as it is composed of small, widely dispersed particles. Which is just the size for pieces of plastic to cause problems for a lot of hungry sea life.

  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @03:05PM (#35769152) Homepage Journal

    could help prevent the tragedy of the next oil spill.

    The slick on the surface isn't "the tragedy" of these oil spills. Most of the tragedy is below the surface, where TV cameras and congressmembers won't see it.

    I welcome anything good at cleaning up our messes. Especially a device this open and energy efficient. But let's not pretend that cleaning up the surface could possibly "prevent the tragedy". By the time this thing is out there cleaning up, most of the tragedy has already gone down. And pretending it's OK is exactly what the oil drilling biz depends on people thinking so the oil drillers don't have to invest anything in actually preventing the next tragedy.

    • Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. Show me a Kickstarter project to fund where we can actually prevent the real tragedy, and I'll increase my pledge by an order of magnitude. I'm just happy to see something innovative come along that returns a modicum of power and control to normal people - caring people who are out to make a difference.
    • by hedwards (940851)

      The problem is that if you don't remove the surface coat of oil everything below ends up suffocating. Mind you cleaning up the oil on the surface really isn't enough, but you're not going to have anything left if you don't deal with it in some fashion.

      • by Doc Ruby (173196)

        The problem is that what you just said is one of the stupidest things I've heard about an oil spill.

    • by nido (102070) <nido56&yahoo,com> on Saturday April 09, 2011 @05:10PM (#35769858) Homepage

      Last summer, when the oil geyser had been flowing uninhibited for over two months, I posted here about my idea for using the US Navy's portable nuclear reactors [teslabox.com] to power air pumps that would oxygenate ocean waters affected by the spill. The oxygen would feed the bacteria already present in the water that happily consume seeped oil.

      The slick on the surface isn't "the tragedy" of these oil spills. Most of the tragedy is below the surface, where TV cameras and congressmembers won't see it.

      One of the visitors said that it'd be difficult to pump air to the depths of the ocean, and suggested pumping oxygenated surface water instead. I took that and other feedback to write a short followup piece on Cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico [teslabox.com].

      I welcome anything good at cleaning up our messes. Especially a device this open and energy efficient. But let's not pretend that cleaning up the surface could possibly "prevent the tragedy". By the time this thing is out there cleaning up, most of the tragedy has already gone down.

      While this thing might be okay for little oil spills, like the one from a few weeks ago [chron.com], effectively responding to future underwater blowouts will require massive infrastructure and power. Like what could be stored on, delivered and powered by a retired nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

      I just want the politicians to order the Navy to get some guys thinking about the idea: When Disaster Strikes, Send the Enterprise [sendtheenterprise.org]. Or maybe I'll write the Japanese embassy to suggest that they offer to buy the Enterprise, thereby saving the US Navy $millions in decommissioning costs. They have the infrastructure to refuel it, if required, and the motivation to dedicate it to disaster response.

      • I was sort of following your logic until you got to the part about selling a worn out fleet carrier to the Japanese.

        You realize the navy doesn't sell stuff that's still good enough?

        You realize that humanitarian missions have no need for CAP and all that it entails?

        Carriers are great at projecting power through portable air power. They are highly specialized and expensive as hell. It would be cheaper to start from scratch.

        You also remember what happened that last time Japan had carriers? If you want

        • by nido (102070)

          I was sort of following your logic until you got to the part about selling a worn out fleet carrier to the Japanese.

          It may be obsolete as a force-projecting aircraft carrier. But they just spent $600 million to refurbish it, so surely some use can still be found for it as some other type of boat. The Japanese wouldn't have to offer much: a token dollar would be fine by me.

          If the Japanese Self Defense forces bought the boat, the US Navy could even remove the catapults and arresting wires as a condition of sale.

          The main thing is to get some imaginative navy officers to do a study before the ship gets cut apart.

      • Like what could be stored on, delivered and powered by a retired nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

        In some universe where nuclear carriers aren't retired because they are worn out, that would be a useful concept. Here in the real world, it's a ludicrous idea.

        I just want the politicians to order the Navy to get some guys thinking about the idea

        It'll take the Navy about three months to reply - but while the executive summary of the report will actually be dry bureaucratase, it will pretty much say "RO

        • Hi again,

          I meant to email you about some feedback I received, but I didn't get around to it & then I forgot. Sorry about that.

          A few weeks back I sent an email to a blog with a post about an aircraft carrier being used to power a city. He too thought it was a horrible idea, but said it was original so he put it out for discussion. The responders agreed that Enterprise was not appropriate. But many felt that a "dedicated disaster response ship" could be useful, and that either something purpose-built, or

      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        Last summer, when the oil geyser had been flowing uninhibited for over two months, I posted here about my idea

        Well, it's compactly presented and has obviously had fair thought applied to it, so it deserves a reasoned response.

        for using the US Navy's portable nuclear reactors to power air pumps that would oxygenate ocean waters affected by the spill. The oxygen would feed the bacteria already present in the water that happily consume seeped oil.

        ... which would work until the [bacterial] populations reached

  • Like from 4chan?

    Oh. Nevar mind.
  • Wind Power (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Why use wind power when there's all that juicy oil floating around??

  • by 0WaitState (231806) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @04:00PM (#35769432)

    Mentioned in TFA but not the summary, is the idea that these could be deployed to work on the plastic fragments floating around in the pacific gyre. Don't know if the scope is feasible, but it's fairly original and more scalable than any other approach I've heard of.

    Also, they've developed an articulating hull to deal with drag of a long tail--it's rather original. They're up front about not yet knowing howing it'll behave when the tail accumulates a full load of oil. That's why they're raising money for the next version (#6).

    • ... articulating hull to deal with drag of a long tail

      The articulating hull is to assist with tacking (Moving the rudder forward is how they dealt with the drag of a long tow-load).

      Why not gybe instead of tacking? I suspect that would risk entanglement with the long tail.

  • by the_skywise (189793) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @04:14PM (#35769522)

    But will it still have trouble finding home base to recharge?!

  • by Hairy1 (180056) on Saturday April 09, 2011 @04:31PM (#35769632) Homepage

    They want tens of thousands of dollars to make a prototype that will be "low cost"? This isn't a story about something that has been actually made. How much is actually required to make a autonomous boat? Well, I guess I know a little more than most, since I've actually built a prototype - the budget needed for all the parts easily comes in under $3000.

    My latest efforts are here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zvC-CpljCc [youtube.com]

    The "Open Boat" project is intended as a research platform; eventually to permit long term sea going boats to perform research such as weather monitoring. It is also the first step towards investigating autonomous cargo vessels. All the software is open source, and currently running on a Linux based ARM.

    • That's awesome! What would you do with more budget? Have you considered collaborating with Protei? It seems like they're at a similar stage to you - they've done their initial prototyping on a shoestring and now need more $$$ to take the next step.
      • by Hairy1 (180056)

        Right now this is a "fun" project - I'm not trying to get too worried about the applications. The real issue with autonomous boats is the ability to visually detect and avoid other craft. While not important with small models like I've got now, once we start to get to a reasonable size it will need to be able to process visual information to identify and avoid collisions.

        I think it is a mistake to try and build a boat like this around a specific application - especially cleaning oil. Energy would be better

        • by Zerth (26112)

          Think about cargo ships sailing into dangerous areas - such as those with pirates. If you have a ship that is autonomous there are no lives to risk, and if boarded the control systems could be buried under tons of cargo; impossible to reach, and with ability to control from on board.

          So the pirates can just climb on, take the cargo, and sail off without anybody trying to stop them? Awesome.

          • by Hairy1 (180056)

            And exactly are they going to control a robotic vessel with it's rudder and propulsion at the bottom of the ship covered in tons and tons of cargo? Hell - they will need gear to cut into the hold just to get access to cargo, and then they need some way to carry it away. The ship won't stop, and if you do manage to disable the control systems you won't have any easy means to actually control the ship. It would be much more difficult to pirate such a ship.

  • If they want to use that boat battery to operate the winch and the micro controller, they'll need more than a solar panel to charge it. They should consider adding a forward facing prop under the hull to harvest power from the vessel's slip stream to run a small generator as an additional power source for the battery. Though in their design, I didn't see how they planned to actuate the rudder (did it have a rudder?) to maintain a steady bearing to harness the wind effectively.

  • I watched the vid but I wasn't convinced that you could pull something through the water like a kite tail and have it pick up significant amount of oil. I used to mow a couple of acres of grass every week using a riding lawn mower. The width of the cutting deck was 46" but it still took a fair amount of time to cover the area. In all the pictures, the absorber looked really small in diameter. One of these trying to soak up a square mile of oil would look pretty ineffectual especially as viewed from abov
  • http://www.fastcompany.com/1745760/cleaning-up-oil-with-a-swarm-of-autonomous-sailboats [fastcompany.com] It explains a lot more about the technical points, and the goals of the Kickstarter project.
  • Robots are, by definition, autonomous.

    Don't be confused by the pop culture tendency to call any machine that doesn't have a pilot inside it a robot. For instance, UAVs and the Battle Bots are not robots, they are piloted remotely like the RC cars you had as a kid.

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