Robotic dogs sniff out toxins near schools

They sniff, wag their tails, fetch, and run in packs. Inside their plastic and metallic skins, robotic dogs programmed by engineering students at Yale University even have a social conscience.

The mechanical canines, equipped with just about everything but a wet nose, are wired to sniff out toxic materials at former landfills and radioactive sites, providing environmental information about parks, school yards, and other public spaces.

The robots have spurred toxic search projects in the United States, Europe, and Australia. They are the brainchild of Natalie Jeremijenko, a lecturer in engineering at Yale and self-described technoartist.

“Technology is a social actor,” she said. “These dogs are programmed into instruments for social activism. It’s technological politics in another form.”

The dogs were originally designed, manufactured, and marketed commercially as toys by Sony Electronics Inc., Mattel Inc., and other companies.

Sony’s AIBO, which has been on the market since 1999 and sells for $1,599, is intended to draw emotional responses from its masters, said Jon Piazza, a spokesman for Sony robotics entertainment in New York. The dogs’ software platform is available on the company’s web site and may be used for other purposes, he said.

For example, a competition has drawn 20 universities with programmed robotic toys that participate in a “Robo Cup,” he said.

The Yale project is different.

Jeremijenko, a mechanical engineer and computer scientist, designed her robotic dogs 18 months ago as a spinoff from a research project she began in the late 1990s that she calls an Interaction Triggered System. Its intent was to see how people interact with technology.

Distribution and cost are two major advantages of transforming the dogs into community activists. The toys are easily available, and gutting them for a university engineering project is the least expensive way to teach robotics, she said.

And dogs–the real ones–are a good model for robots, because they’re companion animals and “can sense things we can’t sense,” Jeremijenko said.

Robotic technology is hardly new. It’s increasingly being applied to repetitive factory tasks or dangerous work such as defusing bombs or finding victims in collapsed buildings.

Advances in microtechnology lead to ever-smaller sensors as engineers and scientists seek new uses. For Jeremijenko, one of these new uses is the feral dog project–so named, she says, because feral dogs are street-smart and wily.

The dogs’ “brains” are upgraded and their “noses” programmed to pick up the scent of common volatile organic compounds–such as paint thinners or dry cleaning fluids–or more dangerous toxins. They also are built to navigate a variety of terrains.

In addition, cameras are placed in the dogs’ hindquarters to allow researchers to observe their interaction with handlers.

The dogs also are wired to move in packs. To collect samples from a larger area more effectively, the pack is programmed to follow the dog with the strongest sensor reading.

The result is the collection of data from a broad area with time-specific samples and extensive mapping of the area being surveyed.

The robotic dogs have been assigned to work at several sites, often with youngsters who are fascinated by the machines and, Jeremijenko hopes, learn from the experience.

Of 12 robotic dogs wired at Yale, several have been put to work in nearby Hamden, Conn., where tests have found arsenic, lead. and other pollutants in soil beneath a school and nearby homes. Four canine robots also have been sniffing around a park on former Consolidated Edison property along the Bronx River in New York.

Jeremijenko’s project has spawned an internet presence, inspiring others to sic robotic dogs on sites in Belarus that were in the path of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, on sites in Australia used for atomic testing in the 1950s, and on radioactive waste sites in Idaho.

The dogs are available “wherever there’s a site of community interest and kids are interested in robotics,” Jeremijenko said.

They also advance her teaching philosophy.

“It’s part of a larger shift in education: how to apply your knowledge to local problems,” Jeremijenko said. “It’s extremely important that engineers understand the social implications of their designs.”


Feral dog project

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