Sailing to Save the Seas


What if a robotic boat could attack a fresh oil spill, soak up and store the errant petroleum, go ashore to disgorge its slimy cargo, and head back to sea for more? That’s the promise of Protei, a snakelike sailboat first envisioned by a team led by environmental artist Cesar Harada, furthered by the V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, and now in development online.

Protei is inflatable; its flexible hull twists back and forth like a rudder, and a high-tech sponge (sorbent boom), which trails the boat like a tail, soaks up oil as the boat sails upwind. V2_ members are working on prototypes to make it lighter, more durable, inexpensive, and easy to produce. They also are perfecting waterproofing and want to scale up the model. “Right now the boat is three meters long,” says project manager Piem Wirtz. “We want a final model of six to eight meters because then it can carry more oil.” The group envisions Proteis working alone or in fleets—even in hurricane-force winds.

The Protei technology is licensed as open source, meaning that anyone anywhere can improve the equipment or redesign it for other purposes—a Protei for the North Pacific garbage patch, perhaps, or another model for collecting heavy metals and toxic substances in coastal and urbanized waterways. V2_ sponsored the full-scale prototype, and universities in Chile, Australia, and the United Kingdom are partners in its refinement. “We don’t want a big company like BP to buy the technology and patent it,” Wirtz says. “We’ll follow the project as it evolves and hope to be the main hub through it all.”

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Vanessa Schipani is a former editorial assistant at The American Scholar.


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