Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal is a putrid remnant of New York’s industrial past. Full of lead, mercury, sewage, and PCB’s, it burns green on good days, and has a faintly sulfurous smell in summer. The EPA has some controversial plans to clean up the Superfund site. But first, a group from NYU Polytechnic wants to find out exactly what’s beneath the murky waters.
The team is using a remote-controlled Aquatic Robotic Vehicle that shifts around the depths, collecting data on temperature, salinity, oxygen and pH levels, transmitting it back to a website. The Brooklyn Atlantis, as the device is known, also has cameras above and below the water, giving the public a view of the canal it wouldn’t normally see.
We’ve covered several similar amphibious robots, including this gliding fish, and this “sea turtle” from Switzerland. What they share is the ability to swim effortlessly, and for long periods, and go places humans can’t or won’t (who, after all, would want to dive into the Gowanus?).
What makes Brooklyn Atlantis different, though, is that it’s also a citizen science project. More than 600 volunteers have registered online, and are helping to analyze data and tag photos.
“The main advantage of using an unmanned vehicle in our project is making it easier for anyone, anywhere, to access the data and contribute,” says assistant professor Oded Nov, who’s helping lead the initiative. “It enables us to bring many human eyes and brains to an area that’s not accessible to them in any other way.”
“It is easy to take a sample of water quality and analyze it. But to quantify something like wildlife presence, over time, and in different locations, we use a cost-effective approach in combination with our robot’s capabilities,” explains Nov.
It’s another example of how distributed technology and citizen science can help the environment. “Environmental monitoring can benefit enormously from the ability to deploy volunteers to monitor polluted or otherwise scientifically interesting areas,” he says.