Major events, especially those that capture tremendous public attention because of the potential damage to the environment like the recent Gulf Oil Spill, often highlight the need for more investment in robot research and development that can provide practical clean-up solutions. After potentially catastrophic disaster occurs, it's way too late to realize that we should have developed the technology years in advance.
At the same time, depending totally on the companies, like BT, that are focused on maximizing profitability by exploiting an oil deposit is very high risk since their management priorities often turn out to be heavily weighted towards the decisions that will help them achieve their goals while minimizing the risks.
Some pundits have suggested that a portion of any oil lease, or related government licenses given to private companies, be dedicated to the development of preventative and emergency response technology. At a time when our leading universities and research facilities are struggling to find funding for even the most basic robotic research projects the need for investment of this type is abundantly clear.
SeaSwarm - Robot swarm to clean-up oil spillsA good example might the the MIT SeaSwarm project - the type of work that, had it been actively developed and in place prior to the Gulf spill, may have gone a long way towards containing and mitigating the disaster. According to a Forbes article: "Their newest project, a swarm of robots called SeaSwarm, proposes to skim the ocean surface and remove oil. The robots use "a photovoltaic-powered conveyor belt made of a thin nanowire mesh to propel itself and collect oil," MIT said in a statement. The first prototype was successfully tested in Boston's Charles River in August, and it responded well to the water's changing surface."
MIT SeaSwarm - Forbes article