Jun 142010

I was pondering the oil spill in the Gulf, my work in automata, my fascination with robotics, and my friends with boats in Pensacola. Then I had another one of my crazy ideas — Hopefully it’s crazy enough to attract some interest and maybe even get done — so I thought I’d share. (That’s what blogs are for right?!)

What if we (collectively) develop an open source project to build (or refit) a fleet of small autonomous boats to patrol the Gulf looking for oil to collect and separate from the water. Here are the key points:

  • The craft are small and slow moving so they are not dangerous. They should be just large enough to carry a useful amount of collected oil, and just fast enough to get out of their own way and survive in the ocean.
  • The control systems are a collection of relatively simple, dedicated, open-source components designed to fail safe. If one subsystem doesn’t get what it expects from another subsystem then the robot stops and waits (signals) for help. More sophisticated systems can interact with the simpler control subsystems for exotic behaviors– but the basics would be very close to “hard-wired” reflexes.
  • Broken parts can be easily swapped out. Upgrades are equally easy to deploy by replacing swappable components with better ones.
  • Each is equipped with a centrifuge and a scoop/skimmer. It’s instincts are to seek out oil on the surface and turn on it’s skimmer while it slowly moves through that patch of ocean. The centrifuge separates the oil from the water. The water goes back in the ocean, the oil goes into the tank.
  • When a robot finds oil it tells it’s friends via radio using GPS to identify it’s location. Along the way it can gather other data that it can get for free from it’s control system’s sensors such as temperature, wind data, an any other data from attached sensors.
  • The instincts of the robots are based on a collection of simple behaviors and reflexes (more later).
  • Each has an open tank in back where the separated oil is deposited. When the robot detects that it’s tank is sufficiently full (or that it otherwise needs service/fuel) it will drive toward a barge where it will wait in line for it’s tank to be pumped out and it’s fuel tank to be topped off.
  • It might even be possible to make solar powered versions that do not require fuel — they would sleep at night. This kind of thing might also be a backup system to get the robot to safety in case of a main engine failure.
  • Endurance and autonomous operation are key design goals. These do not need to be (nor do we want them to be) big or fast or even particularly efficient. The benefit comes from their numbers, their small size, their ability to collaborate with each other, and their “always on” attitude. Since they work all the time and do not require human intervention they do not have to be powerful— just persistent. Their numbers and distribution are what gets the job done.
  • Since the robots are unmanned there is little exposure hazard for people (or animals). Robots don’t get sick — they may break down, but they don’t care how toxic their environment is during or after they do their job. These in particular are ultimately disposable if they need to be.
  • The subsystems should be designed so that they can be used in purpose built craft or deployed in existing craft that are re-purposed for the task.

Instincts (Roughly in order of priority):

  • Robots prefer to keep their distance from anything else on the surface of the water. They can do this with simple visual systems (or expensive LIDAR, or whatever folks dream up to put on their bot). Basically, if it doesn’t look like water they don’t want to be near it — unless, perhaps, it’s oil on top of water.
  • Robots prefer to stay within a minimum depth of water. The more shallow the water gets the more the robot wants to be in deeper water. The safety limits for this can be partially enforced by separate sub-systems but the primary goal is for the robots instincts and natural behaviors to automatically achieve the safety goals “as a matter of habit.”
  • Robots like to be closer to other robots that are successful — but not closer than the safe distance described earlier. If they get too close to something then the prior rule takes over. This allows the robots to flock on a patch of oil without running into each other. They will also naturally separate themselves in a pattern that optimizes their ability to collect oil from that patch. As a matter of safety they will also stay away from other vessels even (perhaps especially) if they don’t act like other robots.
  • Robots like to be in places they have not been before. This instinct causes them to search in new places for oil.
  • If a robot can’t get close enough to a patch of oil because other robots have already flocked there then the robot will eventually stop trying and will go search somewhere else.
  • Robots like to be closer to shore (but not too close -see above) rather than farther away. This gives the robots a tendency to concentrate on oil that is threatening the coast and also minimizes the possibility that the robot will be lost in the deeper ocean. Remember the other rule above about keeping their distance from everything— that will keep them from getting too close to shore too. “Close to something” includes being in water that is too shallow.
  • Robots shut down if anything gets too close to them. So, if they malfunction and get close to something else, OR, of someone else gets close to them then their instinct is to STOP. This behavior allows authorities to approach a robot safely at any time for whatever purpose.

What I envision here is something that can be mass produced easily by anybody with the will and facilities to do it. All of the hardware and software components would be open-sourced so that they can be refined through experience and enhanced by everyone who is participating.

It seems to me that the problem with the oil that is already in the Gulf is that it is spread over a very wide area and it is broken up into lots of small patches that are too numerous to track and manage from a central location.

A fleet of robust, inexpensive, safe, autonomous skimmers would be able to collectively solve this problem through a distributed intelligence. Along the way the same fleet would be able to provide a tremendous amount of information about conditions that is currently not available.

The design is simple, and the craft are expendable. Since each is collecting oil that is in the water, and shouldn’t be, if there is a catastrophic failure of a robot and it sinks then the result is that the oil it collected is back in the water. Not great, but also not worse than it was before the oil was collected in the first place.

If this idea catches on then I believe we (collectively) could produce huge numbers of these in a very short time – and each one would contribute to solving a problem that is currently not solvable. Also, as the technology is refined, the same systems would be available for any similar events that occur later… After all, the world is not going to stop drilling for oil in the deep oceans (or elsewhere) until it is all but gone. That is an unfortunate fact, in my opinion, but a fact none the less.

I believe also that the technology that would be developed through the creation of this fleet and the subsystems that support it would be useful for many other purposes as well… ranging from automated search and rescue to border patrol and anti-terrorism efforts.

This is a rough draft taken from the back of the envelope.

Let me know what you think!

I would love to work on a project like this. 🙂

I would love even more to see LOTS of folks working on this.

PS. Just before pushing the button I had another idea… (as I often do). What if the robots also had behaviors that allowed them to bucket-brigade oil toward collection points. So… if a slow moving robot could not possibly make it out to the barge from it’s station near the shore it would instead make a trip toward the barge and upon meeting up with one of it’s buddies it could hand it’s cargo off— Consider a kind of dance— the bot giving leads the bot that’s accepting — it dumps it’s cargo into the water just ahead of it’s buddy and it’s buddy scoops it up. At the very least the oil is farther from shore, and at best most of the transfer is completed safely without any single robot needing the range or speed required to make the entire trip to the collection point… In fact, this could be the primary mechanism— bots could dump their cargo in a collection area – a safe distance from the barge. Then other specialized equipment could safely collect it from there…