The Tiny Robotic Scientist Cleaning Up Brooklyn's Superfund Site

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
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An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
A mechanical scientist willing to swim where few humans would dare. (Photo: Christopher Leaman)

A mechanical scientist willing to swim where few humans would dare. (Photo: Christopher Leaman)

Libby Copeland profiles New York University roboticists who are betting that a tiny aquatic machine will inspire the community to care about Brooklyn’s neglected Superfund site.

Copeland's Pacific Standard story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Wednesday, January 20. Until then, an excerpt:

It is low tide at the Gowanus Canal. The water near 2nd Avenue and 5th Street is dark green and murky. The smell of rotten eggs wafts through the air; it could be from the untreated human waste that regularly empties into the waterway, or from the noisy industry that burdens its banks. This Brooklyn fixture, thick with cancer-causing pollutants, was designated a Superfund site in 2010. But two men head straight for it, cradling a small, yellow robotic boat, like movers carrying a delicate end table. One man wears industrial rubber boots so he can step into the fetid muck without having to fear for his foot.

“Whenever it rains, this is where the raw sewage comes out,” explains Jeffrey Laut, a student at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

Laut and his research partner have reached the tricky part—a rocky path where one loose stone could mean the most awful of submersions. At the edge of the canal, they gingerly place the robot into the water, careful not to graze the surface with their hands. Laut picks up a remote control, pushes a lever, and four lithium polymer batteries inside the three-and-a-half-foot-long contraption start its thrusters, which guide it into the middle of the canal. Several times a month, the machine takes photographs and samples the water quality there. Some days, Laut says, the stench is so bad “you want to vomit.” He occasionally sees dead rats floating in the water. But the robot is impervious to both rats and stink, a mechanical scientist willing to swim where few humans would dare.

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