Protei: An Open Source Fleet of Oil Spill Cleaning Robot Drones Protei: An Open Source Fleet of Oil Spill Cleaning Robot Drones
Social Innovation

Protei: An Open Source Fleet of Oil Spill Cleaning Robot Drones

by Ben Jervey

March 6, 2011

By far the coolest thing I've seen come out of TED this year (watching from afar, as always) is the fascinating Protei project by TED Fellow Cesar Harada.

Harada is an open source hardware guy who is working on some pretty innovative oil spill cleanup technology. Protei is, in overly simple terms, a fleet of open source, pollution collecting, sailing drones. A little more detail:

Protei harnesses the wind in order to power an unmanned sailing drone, pulling a long oil-absorbent ‘tail’ upwind. A fleet of many Protei will work automatically as a swarm, or be remotely controlled by coastal residents and on-line gamers.

Harada developed the idea as a response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, flustered by how little oil was effectively skimmed from the surface during clean-up, and how the workers were exposed to such dangerous fumes throughout the effort. So he moved to New Orleans to work on the project. Harada writes:

Current oil spill skimming technology was able to collect only 3% of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The health of remediation workers was compromised by exposure to cancerous toxic chemicals, skimming boats themselves contributed to pollution and were expensive to power, operations were constrained by daily weather conditions and were limited by proximity to the coast.

Protei will have the advantage of being:

  • Unmanned,
  • Unrestrained by human biological needs;
  • Green and affordable;
  • Self-righting and therefore operable even in hurricane conditions;
  • Semi-autonomous, so that far offshore, many Protei would be able to intelligently and continuously swarm.

Of course, Protei is being developed as an Open Hardware standard, so anyone can can use, modify, and distribute Protei's design. Harada and crew just hope that you'll share your findings.

As of Monday, the Protei project has been up on Kickstarter. They need to raise $27,500 in order to build a full-scale prototype, which they hope to test—to find out how much oil can the boom tail absorb, how much scientific equipment the vessel could bear, and how much trash the drone could scoop up from a garbage patch—this summer in the Netherlands.

Though the first target application is for oil spills, Harada writes that "other versions may be designed in the future for other purposes: Protei for the North Pacific Plastic garbage patch, heavy metals in coastal areas, toxic substances in urbanized waterways." Let's hope this gets funded, as paradigm-bending big ideas like these don't come along all that often.

And unlike Kevin Costner's big oil spill cleaning idea, this one has been developed for purpose, not profit. I'll be making my pledge today.

Ben Jervey More Info

Ben is a writer and editor covering climate change, energy, and environment, and is currently the Climate and Energy Media Fellow at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor at GOOD Magazine and his work has appeared regularly in National Geographic News, Grist, DeSmogBlog, and OnEarth. He recently worked with the non-profit Focus the Nation to publish an Energy 101 primer. When living in New York City, he wrote a book, The Big Green Apple, on how to live a lower impact life in the city. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.
Some recent articles by Ben Jervey:
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Protei: An Open Source Fleet of Oil Spill Cleaning Robot Drones