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

Move over, Kevin Costner. There's a new oil spill cleaning robot in town. And this one is being developed for purpose, not profit.

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.


Of course, as an open source hardware guy, he isn't working alone. Rather, Harada is inviting collaboration from fellow designers, engineers, ocean experts, sailors, and anyone else with something to contribute. This video, featuring a bunch of involved parties from all over the world, spells out the grand vision of Protei, as well as some nitty-gritty details of how these robot boats will take to the spoiled, oiled seas.


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.
  • \n

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.

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