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Italian Researchers See Cleanup Potential in Oil Slick Robot



It’s a recipe for environmental disaster – the Costa Concordia stuck on its side, with half a million gallons of fuel on board.

Two hours away, on the picturesque coastal town of Livorno, a team of scientists is watching events unfold as they continue to test a robot catamaran that could, one day, be an effective weapon in battling oil spills.

The HydroNet monitors the properties of water based on a network of sensors and autonomous robots.

HydroNet’s technical manager, Gabriele Ferri, is leading the project:

“HydroNet project aims at developing a new system for environmental monitoring. This system is composed by autonomous robots, you can see one [there]… The robots are able to [conduct] autonomous navigation. They sample the water up to 50 meters of depth, and they can analyze the water.”

Laser scanners, GPS sensors, and sonar compasses help navigate the robot in diverse water scenarios and prevent collisions above and below the water.

Information about the water’s properties is sent instantaneously to supervisors via a wireless computer network.

HydroNet’s creators, from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, say it could provide real-time analysis of oil slicks and contamination for environmental authorities:

“The water is analyzed on board by sensors developed by the HydroNet consortium. In particular we can measure chromium, cadmium, mercury, dissolved hydrocarbons, and oil slick on the water surface. After we get the measurement, the data is sent autonomously to a control station on the mainland, so we can have synoptic view of the quality of the water.”

The European Commission will decide whether to continue funding HydroNet at the end of January.

Commercial manufacture could follow, allowing the HydroNet to be used alongside existing environmental systems in oil spill scenarios, like those that now threaten the Tuscan coast.

Gabriele Ferri, HydroNet Technical Manager, continues:

“This can be used, for example, in the case of oil spill. If an oil tanker releases some quantity of oil in the water, if we are monitoring an area, a coastal area, we can realize that this is happening and we can notify the environmental agency or the port authorities.”

Environmentalists are waiting anxiously to see if the coast’s rich wildlife is hit by spillage from the marooned cruise ship which struck a rock on January 13.

Years from now, the scientists hope HydroNet could be called on to help with similar scenarios.