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Engineer builds oil spill-cleaning robot
02:40 - Source: VICE

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Story highlights

Engineer develops robotic sailboat to clean up oil spills

Cesar Harada left MIT to pursue the project after visiting the 2010 Gulf oil spill

Motherboard visits Harada's team as the assemble the first Protei prototype

Brooklyn, New York  — 

In April of last year the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men, injuring 17 others and triggering what is generally recognized as one of the greatest human errors ever made and officially the largest unforeseen marine oil catastrophe since people started drilling for oil. By the time the leak was capped in July 2010, enough oil to fill 4.9 million barrels covered the Gulf in a toxic slick.

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Enter Cesar Harada. After visiting the oil spill in June 2010, the young engineer decided to leave MIT in Boston to develop an open source oil spill cleaning robot, Protei. Our current array of oil spill skimming technologies — mostly private boats retrofitted with skimming equipment and skimmers maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard — are only able to collect three percent of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and carry health risks to humans and heavy economic costs. Protei is unmanned, autonomous, relatively inexpensive and open hardware (anybody can use, modify and distribute its designs), making it a potentially powerful weapon in the battle to clean up the Gulf of Mexico while preserving the safety of the workers who would otherwise be exposed to the toxic mess. Already Harada imagines other uses for the sailboat drone, like oceanography and surveillance.

In the first episode of our “Upgrade” series, Motherboard goes to Rotterdam to watch Harada’s ragtag team of scientists and engineers as they hustle to assemble the first Protei prototype and dodge the Dutch harbor patrol for their first water test.