We may not have figured out how to stop oil spills from happening, but the folks at SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT are one step closer to a solution to cleaning up the aftermath. Their newest project, a swarm of robots called SeaSwarm, proposes to skim the ocean surface and remove oil. According to a press release, the robots use "a photovoltaic-powered conveyor belt made of a thin nanowire mesh to propel itself and collect oil." The first prototype was successfully tested in Boston's Charles River in August and it responded well to the water's changing surface.

The robots move on the water's surface autonomously, and the cells generate enough energy to keep the 'bots moving for a few weeks. The conveyor belt constantly rotates and gathers pollutants, gathering the oil in the head of the robot and putting the cleaned belt back into rotation.

The robots work together to cover a large area of the water and communicate with one another and with land-bound researchers. According to an NY Times blog, the 'bots are part of a hot wave of inventions aiming to improve on the "boom-burn-disperse" approach traditionally used to handle oil spills.

The robot is 16 feet long by 7 feet wide and can gather up to 20 times its weight in oil. The idea, according to the Times, is to send thousands of similar devices to clean up a "burgeoning surface spill" very quickly. Another perk of SeaSwarm is that using the flock of robots eliminates the need for human and equipment coordination in a large-scale cleanup effort.

As oil from the Gulf oil spill works its way to the surface, SeaSwarm developers say their units could lap it up almost immediately and do so around the clock. The Times speculates that 10,000 SeaSwarm units could clean up a surface spill like the BP Macondo spill within a month's time. SENSEable City Laboratory researchers told the Times that large quantity production could bring costs down to $20,000 per robotic unit — putting the cleanup price tag at about $200 million.

The researchers have developed two models of the SeaSwarm: one that burns the oil it collects and another that dispatches units to dump their tanks into a floating reservoir. This latter model works with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's plan to enter SeaSwarm into the newest X-Prize category for technology that most efficiently collects and recovers spilled oil.

Swarm of robots to clean up oil spills?
New project from SENSEable City Laboratory proposes a quicker, more efficient cleanup system.