Portrait drawing of César Harada - Copyrights: PETER JAMES FIELD

César Harada, the ocean drone emperor

Posted on 19 February 2015.

César Harada is using the forces of nature to address the major man-made causes of pollution: oil, plastic and radioactivity.

On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico causing a huge oil spillage. César Harada, a young French-Japanese researcher, began designing Protei, an open-source marine drone that can clean up the oceans.

The "commandant Cousteau" of design

César Harada describes himself as an inventor, entrepreneur and environmentalist. His academic background revolving around design was unusual, solid, and very tenacious. "César talked to me lot about tangible projects, open-source electronics, and I found his taste for serious DIY admirable,” recalls Jean-Noël Lafargue, one of his former teachers. The young man has studied and worked all over the world... France, England, the US, China. "From the outside, César would appear to have a dream life – he could be the Commandant Cousteau of design. He deserves the accolade, and in fact I think it’s his destiny," wrote Jean-Noël Lafargue. As his career has progressed, César Harada has developed expertise in two areas - product design and software design – along with a strong activist belief in "open-source hardware". He makes his work available to benefit both the environment and people.

In 2010, César was in Kenya, where he was involved in the construction of *IHub_, an incubator in Nairobi, and contributed to the participatory mapping software Ushahidi. But no sooner had he arrived, he was contacted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Deepwater Horizon was spilling oil into the ocean off Louisiana and MIT were looking for an engineer that could develop hydrocarbon absorption technology.

Small fish, small boat

Once there, César Harada discovered that the pollution control resources employed were far from satisfactory. The ships working on the oil spill were wasting tons of diesel and absorbing only a small fraction of the oil - about 3%. Above all, the process exposed people on the boats to some very toxic chemicals that would damage their health. At MIT, César led a team of researchers. The project, which combined robotics and materials science, was fascinating. The downside was that it was a long term project and would result in an expensive, patented solution. Something which goes completely against his approach to innovation! He wanted to develop a low-cost open-source machine that could be put into operation quickly. In a "dream job" that many researchers envied, César Harada had no second thoughts and left. He returned to New Orleans, as close as possible to the spill.

There, he began working on Protei, and brought together a community around the project (more about that later). Protei looks like a big fish – it is a biomimetic marine sailing drone, driven by the combined forces of the wind and waves. Its articulated hull makes it maneuverable and allows it to operate even in bad weather. Equipped with a long tail, it absorbs a maximum amount of oil. As it is remote-controlled and semi-autonomous, several drones can be deployed and clean up the ocean with limited human intervention. After several years of struggling and several prototypes, César Harada produced a model kit that now sells for 770 dollars.

International ocean station

From the beginning, Protei has been an international collaborative project. Sailors, scientists, and engineers from around the world contributed to improving César’s drone. Protei therefore resulted in the formation of a real community known as Open H2O, whose goal is to develop open-source technologies to explore and save the oceans. For example, its members hope to construct an international ocean station.

Anyone can download the Protei plans and make it relatively easily. César’s objective is to mass produce his little boats so they can be used in the oceans when there is an environmental disaster. Protei is not just for cleaning up oil spills, it can also be used to filter waste plastic and measure radioactivity. It was even tested in Fukushima.

Main picture: Portrait drawing of César Harada