Thursday, June 13

Brave, Gross New World: Smart Sewers and Sewer Robots of the Future

Sewer robots aren’t exactly the sexiest kind of robot, but according to two MIT researchers, sewer robots may just be the future of public health. And if the technology lives up to the hype, these robots are just the beginning of the “smart sewers” coming to a city near you.

Already, MIT’s Underworlds project has birthed two sewer robots, fittingly dubbed Mario and Luigi, which have been exploring the sewage flowing beneath Cambridge, MA. Architects Newsha Ghaeli and Alaa AlRadwan recently showed off their second generation sewer robot — that would be Luigi — to a writer at IEEE Spectrum, which offers the first up-close look at these sewage-sifting robots.

The MIT Underworlds project is based on a simple premise: “A vast reservoir of information on human health and behavior lives in our sewage. And this resource is untapped.”

Essentially, urban architect Carlo Ratti and microbiome expert Eric Alm, of the MIT Senseable City Lab and Alm Lab, believe that robots can plumb the depths of municipal sewer systems and analyze fecal matter for public health purposes, like identifying new viruses or bacterias. These smart sewers of the future could act as an early warning system for disease outbreaks.

Today, toilets account for about 30% of the average home’s water consumption, and the researchers don’t want all that valuable data going to waste, literally.

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“We can really tell a lot about a person by sampling their gut, and all of this data is getting flushed down the toilet,” said Ghaeli. “We first started with a big pole with a bottle duct-taped onto the end of it.”

According to the official Underworlds website, “We imagine a future in which sewage is mined for real-time information that can inform policy makers, health practitioners, designers, and researchers alike… Early warnings in relation to the presence of new flu strains in urban centers could significantly reduce a community’s medical costs and even help mitigate outbreaks. In addition, smart sewage could impact the way non-communicable diseases are studied, because biomarkers for diseases such as obesity and diabetes can be measured at unprecedented scale and temporal resolution.”

To that end, researchers at MIT have created Luigi, which IEEE Spectrum writer Megan Scudellari described as a “long, tube-shaped device about the length of my arm.”

The technology is still in its early design stages, but if it proves successful, the Internet of Things could soon be going underground.

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