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    Upgrade: Building Drone Sailboats to Suck Up Oil Spills

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    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 – a situation that is part of everyday life in the Niger Delta.

    Enter Cesar Harada. After visiting the oil spill, in June of 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 3 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. The future is open, as the project’s plans and designs are being published online for anyone to adapt.

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

    After you watch, consider submitting your own breakthrough idea to a truly appropriate contest: instead of winning a skydiving adventure with your favorite reality show cast member or lifetime supply of hotdogs, you stand the chance to win one of five $1000 prizes to bring your idea to fruition. Submit here.

    Reach this writer at sean@motherboard.tv