Seaswarm: Why Do Robots So Often Disappoint?

The range of jobs robots can theoretically do keeps growing. One of the most desirable is cleaning up oil spills. Researchers have been looking for ways to delegate this job to robots for years. One MIT project, Seaswarm, sent out swarms of oil-drinking robots to gather oil in nanowire meshes. Powered by a solar panel, each of these robots sends a flexible conveyor belt onto the water. The belt repels water and gathers oil, collecting the oil in the robot’s head. The conveyor belt goes back into the water, using solar powered continuous motion to gobble up the oil.

The robots, 16 by 7 feet in size, can hold up to 20 times their weight in oil. In 2010, there were a couple of ideas about how to deal with the oil: either burning it in situ or offloading it into tankers for reuse.

The idea is to send out thousands of the robots at once, with GPS and WIFI to help them organize themselves and their work. With very little human input, the Seaswarm could steadily clean up an oil slick without endangering humans.


In 2010, Seaswarm promised it could clean up the Gulf in a month. A decade later, it’s being suggested as a possible solution for the oil spill in Mauritius. But Seaswarm is still in the simulation stage.

In fact, even with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing automation beyond expectations, only 1.3% of U.S. companies have made serious investments in robots. New ideas in robotics come up constantly, but rarely get beyond the proof of concept stage. A few types of robots work well and consistently, so companies will invest in them.

The rest — including swarms of floating conveyor belts sopping up oil spills — stay in the R & D stage for decades. They make headlines, but they don’t make money. Most companies don’t want to take the risk with these exciting but unproven ideas.

Experts say that incremental improvements are most likely to be the right goal for robotics in the foreseeable future.

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