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LIFE

Hong Kong-based inventor's breakthrough robotic boat aims to clean-up oceans

A Hong Kong-based environmentalist and inventor is developing special boats with shape-shifting hulls to help clean-up the oceans

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 10:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 1:29pm

A Yuen Long farm an hour from the sea may not seem like the ideal location for a boat workshop, but it's where French-Japanese environmentalist and inventor Cesar Harada is based.

That's where he is designing and building unique robotic boats with shape-shifting hulls and the ability to clean-up oil spills. The hull changes shape to control the direction "like a fish", Harada, 30, says. It is effectively a second sail in the water, so the boat has a tighter turning circle and can even sail backwards.

Our first boat really looked like this ugly, strange, blind salamander
cesar harada, inventor 

"I hope to make the world's most manoeuvrable sailboat," he says. "The shape-shifting hull is a real breakthrough in technology. Nobody has done it in a dynamic way before."

Harada hopes one day a fleet of fully automated boats will patrol the oceans, performing all sorts of clean-up and data-collection tasks, such as radioactivity sensing, coral reef imaging and fish counting.

Asia could benefit greatly because, Harada says, the region has the worst pollution problems in the world. Yet the story of his invention started in the Gulf of Mexico, following one of the most devastating environmental disasters in recent years - the 2010 BP oil spill. Harada was working in construction in Kenya when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hired him to lead a team of researchers to develop a robot that could clean-up the oil.

He spent half his salary visiting the gulf and hiring a fisherman to take him to the oil spill. More than 700 repurposed fishing boats had been deployed to clean-up the slick, but only 3 per cent of the oil was collected.

It then dawned on him that because the robot he was developing at MIT was patented, it could only be developed by one company, which would take a long time, and it would be so expensive that it could only be used in rich countries.

This realisation made Harada quit his "dream job" to develop an alternative oil-cleaning technology: something cheap, fast and open-source, so it could be freely used, modified and distributed by anyone, as long as they shared their improvements with the community.

He moved to New Orleans to be closer to the spill, and taught local residents how to map the oil with cameras attached to balloons and kites.

Harada set up a company to develop his invention, originally based in New York before moving to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and then San Francisco. Now, Harada says he will be based in Hong Kong for at least the next five years. He built his workshop and adjoining office in Yuen Long himself in five months on what used to be a concrete parking space covered with an iron roof after acquiring the site in June last year.

He first visited Hong Kong last year while sailing around the world on a four-month cruise for entrepreneurs and students. It is the perfect location for his ocean robotics company, he says, because the city's import-export capabilities and the availability of electronics in Shenzhen are the best in the world. Also, Hongkongers are excited about technology, setting up a business is easy, taxes are low and regulations flexible, he says.

He named the boat Protei after the proteus salamander, which lives in the caves of Slovenia. "Our first boat really looked like this ugly, strange, blind salamander," Harada says with a laugh. He later discovered that Proteus is the name of a Greek sea god - one of the sons of Poseidon, who protects sea creatures by changing form, and the name stuck. "He is the shepherd of the sea," Harada says.

Harada built the first four prototypes in a month by hacking and reconfiguring toys in his garage, and invented the shape-shifting hull to pull long objects. A cylinder of oil-absorbent material is attached to the end of the boat that soaks up oil like a sponge. The shape-shifting hull allows the jib - or front sail - and the main sail to be at different angles to the wind, allowing the boat to sail upwind more efficiently, intercepting spilled oil that is drifting downwind.

"Sailing is an ancient technology that we are abandoning. But it's how humans colonised the entire earth, so it's a really efficient technology," Harada says. "The shape-shifting hull is a superior way of steering a wind vessel."

The prototype is now in its 11th generation. The hull, which measures about a metre long, looks and moves like a snake's spine. Harada built 10 prototypes this month, which are sold online to individuals and institutions who want to develop the technology for their own uses.

He has collaborators in South Korea, Norway, Mexico and many other countries.

"The more people copy us, the better the technology becomes," he says.

Harada, who describes himself as an environmental entrepreneur, says investors have offered to buy half of the company, but he has turned them all down. "They do not understand the environmental aspect of the business," he says. "They want to build big boats and sell them as expensively as possible."

Harada has a bigger vision for Protei. He wants to create a new market of automated boats. He hopes that one day they will replace the expensive, manned ocean-going vessels that are currently used for scientific research. He says one of these ships can cost tens of millions of dollars, and a further US$4,000 worth of fuel is burned every day. That does not include the cost of a captain, three or four crew members, a cook and a team of researchers.

The expense of these research missions is one of the reasons we know so little about the ocean, Harada says. We have explored only 5 per cent of the ocean, even though it covers 70 per cent of the earth. "We know more about Mars than we know about the ocean."

He notes that there is no gravity in space, so we can send up huge satellites. But submarines that have tried to explore the depths of the ocean have been crushed by the pressure of the water. Ships are not free from risk, either.

"Seafaring is the most dangerous occupation on earth," Harada says.

More people die at sea than on construction sites. An automated boat would also prevent researchers from being exposed to pollution and radiation.

Harada's Japanese family live 100km from Fukushima, and he will go back there for a third time in October to measure the underwater radioactivity near the site. Although he admits to being scared, "it's the biggest release of radioactive particles in history and nobody is really talking about it".

Harada is also working with students from the Harbour School, where he teaches, to develop an optical plastic sensor. "We talk a lot about air pollution, but water pollution is also a huge problem," he says.

He says industries in countries such as India and Vietnam have developed so fast and many environmental problems in the region have not been addressed. "In Kerala [India], all the rivers have been destroyed. The rivers in Kochi are black like ink and smell of sewage. Now it's completely impossible to swim or fish in them."

Hong Kong has not been spared, either. Harada joins beach clean-ups on Lamma Island and says even months after an oil spill and government clean-up last year, they found crabs whose lungs were full of oil. He says locals fish and swim in the water and there are mussels on the seabed that are still covered in oil.

"The problem is as big as the ocean," Harada says. But he believes if man made the problem, man can remedy it. The son of Japanese sculptor Tetsuo Harada, he grew up in Paris and Saint Malo and studied product and interactive design in France and at the Royal College of Art in London.

But he believes that at an advanced level, art and science become indistinguishable.

"I don't see a barrier between science and art at the top level," he says. "It's where imagination meets facts."

darren.wee@scmp.com

 

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