Marinexplore, Protei, Interview


PROTEI: An Open Source Dream Becomes a Reality For Cesar Harada By Nico Danan on May 24, 2013 in Interviews

Cesar Harada is a French-Japanese inventor, environmentalist and entrepreneur. As a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University of London he focuses on ocean communities and technology, and is currently working on his thesis “Open Hardware for the Environment.” In addition to his academic pursuits, Harada is also a TED Senior Fellow working with the Open-H2O community to develop a revolutionary open source sailing drone named Protei.

Why did you decide to leave your dream job at MIT to pursue the creation of an open source project like Protei?

In my lab we were not encouraged to go in the field, but rather to focus on design concept and engineering projection about how the technology could work. In essence, it was more about the technology rather than solving the problem. At the time, everyday in Cambridge I was reading that millions of barrels of oil were pouring into the ocean. As soon as I could, I grabbed a flight to New Orleans and found a fisherman that accepted to take me to the spill site. The captain I met had lost his first leg in hurricane Katrina, the second leg trying to regain his lost fishing boats. Cleaning up the BP oil spill was all he had left to make a living.

I witnessed a devastated coastline, and the health of people involved in cleaning the spill at risk. I came back to the lab with proof of the disaster, but they preferred to stay on the track with developing a long term, expensive and patented research. I decided to resign from my dream job to develop a short-term, low cost, open source technology, knowing that oil spills are harming many other resources and populations.\

In June 2010, I moved to New Orleans and started volunteering with a local non-profit called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (now called Public Labortory), flying helium balloons above spilled areas, producing high resolution maps of the oil spill. This is when I started developing Protei in the garage of my friend Suzette Toledano by Lake Ponchartrain.

Protei version 10.5 in Barcelona

Explain how Protei’s unique hull evolved from a front rudder design to a fully articulated hull?

An oil spill is a man-made disaster but it is controlled by natural forces, namely the wind, surface currents and the waves. Why not using these forces? I started testing how a regular sailboat would perform towing a long and heavy load like a saturated oil sorbent. Here is the evolution of Protei:

  • Protei_001: I modified a small RC boat, moving the rudder at the front and the centerboard further to amplify the lever: it improved how much control I had over the dragged element. I thought I could still increase control over the payload by multiplying the number of rudders, so I replaced my centerboard by several controllable rudders and gained more control.
  • Protei_002: At this stage I was designing a boat with so many rudders it became simpler to make a boat in segments that would curve just like a fish, transforming the whole hull into the organ of control. It made sense to me. I built it and when I operated it for the first time, I was amazed by the maneuverability, how the “nose” of the boat would turn into the wind, catching the windmill faster than a conventional boat and also a lot more stable in the turns.
  • Protei_003: I wanted to know if the system would work on a larger scale, so I built a 3-meter long unit that was inflatable. I built it with the simplest plastic protection sheet from the corner store, duct tape, plumbers PVC tubes, rope, and sand bags for the ballast. I put it in the water, and it worked again!

At that stage I was confident enough to share my findings and started publishing online. I was thinking that this dynamically controlled hull may be one of the most radical improvement in the recent history of naval architecture, it changes everything about the physics of sailing, this could contribute to the industry. I also concluded that it should be made open and free for everyone to use, modify and distribute in order to maximize the positive environmental impact this technology can have.

I was not making claims, I had a vision, the urge and the hope that made me want to publish the project on Kickstarter and involve an international team of engineers and designers that would fast-forward the technology. More than 300 people backed the Protei project, collecting enough money to rent a factory in Rotterdam port and hire a team of amazing engineers, makers and sailors to build Protei_006. Since then, more prototypes have been built by our team and also other Protei community members around the world. Altogether more than 15 machines have been built and tested, we are currently at version 10.5 and we are starting to collect environmental data.

From July 2012, when you first talked at TED about Protei to today, what has happened?

I became a TED fellow in February 2010, so this is when I gave my first TED talk, not about Protei, about another project of mine, the “International Ocean Station”.

The BP oil spill started in April 2010, I started building Protei prototypes in June 2010, we got funded on Kickstarter in April 2011. Between July 2012 and today, here is a rough outline of what we have done:

We have been fighting to remain an independent open source project. In May 2012 I presented Protei at TEDxSummit in Doha, and Gabriella Levine (Protei COO) obtained our first research grant with the Savannah Ocean Exchange. The hardest part has been to find funding, in fact we are currently looking for philanthropy, sponsors, partners interested to explore and protect the oceans with open technologies.

We have restructured ourselves legally: on one hand we have Open-H2O that is a non profit that focus on research, and on the other hand we have Protei Inc. that focuses on optimizing manufacturing, operations, data analysis and clean up work. During 3 months Gabriella Levine and myself have been working at the Techshop in San Francisco, optimizing Protei for manufacturing.

We’ve been working with Andrew Katz, a lawyer specialized in open source, to deliver our own open hardware license specifically for marine applications. To build a solid community, for the last 4 months Gabriella and myself have been sailing around the world with the Unreasonable at Sea accelerator program to define Protei business strategy, technology and product, test prototypes and grow our community. Let me just take you where we’ve been and the themes we addressed:

  • Ensenada, Mexico: red tides. The region is suffering recurrent seasonal red tides. We met prof H. Maske and discussed how we may be able to use Protei to study red tides.
  • Kamilo beach, Hawaii, USA: plastic pollution. With met with Marcus Eriksen, Anna Cummins, Dr. Henk Carson at the University of Hawaii to explore how we could use Protei to measure plastic pollution with fleets of sailing robots. We collected a lot of plastic debris from Kamilo Beach.
  • Fukushima, Japan: radioactivity. We met with FuRo (Future Robotics Laboratory of Tsukuba University) that operates caterpillar robots within the crippled TEPCO Fukushima power plant. We worked with Safecast and the Tokyo University Department of applied physics, built our own underwater radioactivity sensors, measured radioactivity on the sea floor near Fukushima. Recently 120 tons of contaminated water have leaked out of Fukushima, very little is known about what will happen after such an event.
  • Hong Kong / Shenzhen, China: We found excellent affordable manufacturing. We have taken the decision to move to the Hong Kong / Shenzhen area to manufacture Protei with high quality, low cost and in large quantities.
  • Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam: agent orange, industrial and agricultural runoff. We test sailed Protei in a man-made natural reserve, also investigated a natural body of water with extreme pollution in the heart of Ho Chi Minh city.
  • Cochin, India: We encountered terrible civilian, industrial and agricultural pollution.
  • Cape Town, South Africa: We met with local scientists that just completed a 4 months sailing and diving journey mapping coral reef and studying fish populations along the eastern coast of Africa.
  • Takoradi, Ghana: the booming oil industry damages fishing tradition and coastal resident livelihood. We went fishing with a group of fishermen working at proximity of new oil rigs.
  • Casablanca, Morocco: highly motivate engineering community. We organized a hackathon: in one day, a group of about 30 extremely motivated student engineers designed, built and tested 4 sailing robots.

We have made a lot of progress and we’re gearing up to manufacture Protei, build a strong global community website, accelerate technological progress and collect environmental data.

What are the different applications for Protei? Could it become a sensor equipped ocean robot?

Oil spill clean up is what inspired the design of Protei but autonomous sailing robots could be used for a variety of applications. The main functions of Protei are to transport sensors to collect environmental data and to equip them with environmental clean-up systems. Currently we are focusing on the mechanical platform, to make this new technology available for the greatest number of people to be able to work on the sensor and control part, using arduino, beaglebone, rasperry pi, android phones, Ouya.

We are specifically interested in using Protei to address oil spills detection, plastic pollution, radioactive measurement, general oceanography, climate study, earthquake and tsunami alert system, marine biology research, mapping coral reefs, serve as data relay between underwater vehicles and satellite, space research, communication and safety at sea.

If we succeed at controlling one unit well, there are several ways we are interested in expanding the scope of our research, by operating many machines simultaneously, or perhaps larger ones too. My dream is to make Protei the workhorse for surface oceanographic research and cleanup that is low cost, robust, modular, extendable for everyone.

I am very much inspired by the Argo profiler fleet: today there are about 3500 deep profilers in operation, but it took about 30 years to deploy the system until full operational scale, each unit costing about $15,000. For that kind of budget we can build an entire fleet of Protei in a few weeks.

Another source of inspiration is the recent popular passion for multi rotor flying machines. This technology is almost a hundred years old, it’s only in the 1980-90s that the competition in the toy industry and hobbyists markets dramatically made the price of the technology drop while they accelerated technological progress. Ocean instruments are often expensive, why wait so long to make technology available? Instead of writing a PhD about the physics of a shape shifting hull, I would rather manufacture Protei and allow anyone to make it better in order to accelerate technological progress.

You mentioned in a previous discussion that you would like to collaborate with the Marinexplore community. How do you think Marinexplore could contribute to a project like Protei?

I am interested to see how we can use open hardware for the environment. Not only provide real-time transparent data, but also give total transparency about the instruments we are using. The datasets that we will provide are the ones I mentioned above and more, the order in which these will arrive on Marinexplore will depend on our community, they will make these choices.

We are excited to see people in the near future use Protei and share data on Marinexplore, and Marinexplore users adopt Protei as a transport for their sensors. Our goal is to explore and protect the oceans with open technologies. We are now focused on the transport of sensors, Marinexplore is a wonderful platform that allows people to exchange data, compare sets, collaborate and accelerate research. We have a lot in common, let’s work together.