Q&A: Cesar Harada on the Promise of an Open-Source Oil Skimming Robot
The engineer on robot drones, the drawbacks of cutting-edge nanotechnology, and the merits of open-source inventions.
Cesar Harada is a Renaissance Man of the old school. But with some very new school skills. He's probably best described now as an open-source environmental engineer, but even a convoluted label like that doesn't do his work justice. Harada was a construction manager in Kenya for Ushahidi, the open-source crisis mapping organization (which we've covered), building their offices, but also building their network and some of their websites. Construction and engineering are in his half-Japanese, half-French blood. His father is a sculptor, and the Japanese side of his family has long worked in the structural engineering field, earthquake-proofing buildings.
Harada got his first masters in animation film, and then another in design interaction. He's also a pretty accomplished glassblower and a TED Senior Fellow. These days, Harada is focusing on Protei, an open-source ocean skimming robot that he believes could revolutionize oil spill cleanup. (He's raising money for the prototype on Kickstarter.)
GOOD: Protei is described as an oil spill cleaning robot drone. How did you come up with this idea?
Cesar Harada: Originally, I wanted to develop a technology to collect the garbage in the North Pacific, the plastic. It's been stated that there is roughly 100 million tons of plastic in the gyre, so to collect all this plastic, you need something that moves quite slow, something that uses natural patterns, the currents and the winds.
Then the oil spill happened. At the time, I was working with Ushahidi.com in Kenya and I was called by MIT to join a team there to develop a technology to clean up the oil spill based on an oil-absorbing nanomaterial.
GOOD: From what I've seen of Protei, it doesn't seem to be very nano. Quite the opposite, this big device.
Harada: Correct, Protei does not use any nanotechnology and is very different from what is being done at MIT. The research we were doing at MIT is good, important future research, but it was going to take five to ten years to be ready to manufacture and for a high price. Meanwhile, there were millions of gallons spilling into the Gulf. So during the day at MIT I was elaborating plans with nanotechnology and at night in my kitchen I was further developing this plastic gyre skimming thing and adapting it for oil cleanup. At my kitchen table, I was studying currents, sailing and wind patterns, drawing the early designs of Protei.
Then, when my director went on holiday, I escaped MIT on the weekend and flew to New Orleans. I went to see it with my own eyes and put my hands in the oil. I was lucky to find a captain that agreed to take me to the oil spill. I also met up with the Lousiana Bucket Brigade. They had used Ushahidi's code to map the oil spill with local residents.
GOOD: We wrote about their grassroots mapping actually. What did you do with them?
Harada: I was making aerial maps of oil-affected areas with helium balloons and kites. Now I train others to do it and try to improve the technology. By training the people who live and work there you make the mapping effort more sustainable.
You can't rely on just academic intelligence. It's important that you go and talk to the people who know a lot more about a problem. Like the fishermen. And with the Bucket Brigade I was able to meet fisherman and local residents.
GOOD: What did you learn from them?
Harada: I told some fishermen that I was developing this oil spill robot and they were pissed off. At first, I couldn't figure out why. But they were like "if you build an automated robot, then I don't have any more cleaning work."
So now that has informed the thinking of Protei. We don't want to steal anybody's livelihood. Protei needs to be simple and efficient in order to be built and operated by fishermen and locals, so they can still do the cleaning work but without having to risk their health.
GOOD: Help us understand what one of these Protei devices looks like in practice.
Harada: It's simple. The Protei technology itself is just the sailing propulsion head. You put a conventional oil absorbing sorbent on the tail. With the sorbent booms, the ratio of absorption is 1-to-20. So 1 kilogram of sorbent boom can absorb 20 liters of oil. Right now, we hope to build Protei with a tail of about 20 meters, which would hold about 2 tons of oil. The oil drifts down the wind, so we sail upwind capturing oil in the consecutive folds of the tail.
GOOD: And why is Protei better than other cleanup options?
Harada: Right now, most of the cleanup focus is on stopping the oil from getting to the beaches because that's the worst PR for the company and the government. The oil that spreads out into the ocean is forgotten. Protei is most useful for collecting that oil for four reasons. First, you don't endanger the health of the cleanup workers. Second, you can keep skimming even while the weather is bad, which you can't do when it's people on boats. Third, you can operate them at night and far from shore. And finally, it's going to be a lot cheaper and safer than any other options.
After the spill, BP asked for ideas for cleaning the oil, and they got thousands of submissions. It was mostly show. They tested some, but they ended up using mostly the traditional plastic oil booms and dispersant chemicals because their petroleum is used in the plastics of the booms and in the chemicals and in the boats that travel around. Some of the ideas submitted were similar to ours, and some were very popular like Kevin Costner's.
GOOD: I'm so sorry, but I have to ask. Have you talked to Costner?
Harada: No, but as a kid, I was a big fan of Waterworld!
GOOD: Oh, you're the one! What do you think of his idea?
Harada: The technology he's been developing with his brother is good, but it's a patented product. They're from a different generation. They want to clean the environment and make money the old-school way. At Protei we think environmental technologies are best developed open-source.
We won't make money from the technology itself, but hopefully it can have the biggest impact, and we will make money from it later.
GOOD: You seem to believe that this open-source ethic is definitely a better approach than the conventional capitalist model of invention.
Harada: When I was working at MIT, I was working with nanotechnology, which has great promise. But it's all patented, secret. Why are we chasing patents with millions of barrels of oil pouring into the ocean? As soon as I was sure Protei would make a difference, I opened it as a collaboration. It is now developed by Open_Sailing, randomwalks, V2_, Amorphica, and many informal collaborators met through the Open Hardware communities and the TEDxOilSpill networks.
The idea is simple: We give away our mechanical design and electronics programs, everything, and ask only one thing in return: Whoever is using our technology and modifying it to make it better has to share with everybody else how to make it better. If you're a business and you want to sell Protei to market, you should. People can make money off of our technology. But at the same time, every improvement has to be provided back to us. So we'll always be the nexus of this technology.
GOOD: How are you structured right now? As a business? A nonprofit?
Harada: Right now, Protei is produced by V2_, which is a nonprofit based in Rotterdam. We'll be working with lots of universities too. At the same time, because it is Open Hardware, we be able to sell Protei as a product, and it's going to be several times cheaper than any other oil skimming technology that exists on the market.
GOOD: And there's more that Protei can do, right? It was originally conceived to pick up plastic garbage.
Harada: Look at the terrible nuclear leak right now in Japan. There's terrible data, because there are no radiation sensors in the ocean. If you had Protei, you could outfit it with radiation sensors and send it out there and have data right away. We need to be able to deploy many sensors on demand in the ocean for low risk and low cost.
In the future we want to develop Protei to collect plastic in the ocean, execute physical oceanography surveys, biological studies, supply shipments for isolated locations, and more. Protei brings in several radical innovations in the science of sailing with its articulated hull so there will be many surprises and more discoveries on the way.
GOOD: I've watched videos of prototypes online. What exactly are you raising money for on Kickstarter?
Harada: We built more than six prototypes already, but they're all small. They show us that the technology is working, but not how well. We now have the resources to build the full-scale mechanical device itself and what we're raising money for on Kickstarter are all the sensors—the accelerometers, the gyroscopes, GPS, data-loggers, the wireless communication organs so it can network, cameras, pressure gauges, the wind sensor, torque testers, etc.
If we get the funds on Kickstarter, we can actually measure how well Protei works. If we can measure it, we can then say that our machine will work better than this machine or that machine. We can figure out how much oil exactly it can pick up. If we get all this data, we can then get serious industrial funding or academic research funding.
Protei's Kickstarter campaign expires next Tuesday, so they need to secure nearly $8,000 more in pledges in six days.
Photo via Dear World