A Robot Plumbs the Depths of the Gowanus Canal

No one knows what lurks in the toxic depths of the Gowanus Canal, but with the advent of a fleet of remote-controlled rovers that will roam its dank waters for the next few years, its secrets may finally be stripped bare.

That is the hope, at any rate, of a team of researchers and students at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who were wrestling a plastic-and-metal contraption into the greenish water on a recent drizzly morning at the end of Second Street in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

The air was appropriately, and overwhelmingly, sulfurous; the atmosphere, buzzing with excitement and the odd joke at the canal’s expense. As students wrangled their robot into a yellow harness, two professors, Maurizio Porfiri and Oded Nov, hovered around them anxiously, shouting out small adjustments.

With barely a sound, Brooklyn Atlantis I took off for the middle of the canal, guided by a black remote control device that looked more suited to a car-racing video game than this ungainly robot.

The solar-powered aquatic rover is the first of several the researchers hope will be chugging through the canal’s inky waters within a few months. Each will be equipped with underwater and above-water cameras and a multitude of sensors to measure the water’s pH, oxygen, temperature, air quality and salinity, uploading new data and photos to a Web site every few seconds.

“We’ll be able to track how fish breathe or don’t breathe,” said Dr. Porfiri, nodding toward the noxious water with a giggle. Dr. Porfiri is a robotics and mechanics expert who has conducted experiments with robotic fish, while Dr. Nov studies the interactions between humans and machines.

The Web site will be available to everyone, and the researchers hope enough people will start contributing their own analyses of what the robot finds that the data will start yielding insights they might not have found on their own — correlations between the oxygen levels and the types of life forms at different times of year, for instance.

Anyone can tag photos and track patterns in the environmental conditions, and those who contribute frequently and accurately can graduate to greater responsibilities. Particularly avid users will eventually be able to control their own robot. (And, fair warning to the conspiracy theorists: those who eagerly tag every log and leaf “Loch Ness monster” will be weeded out.)

With its citizen-science approach, the Atlantis project is trying to replicate the success of other crowd-sourced research efforts: amateur astronomers and birdwatchers have long helped scientists identify new planets and stars and track bird species. The researchers expect Gowanus residents and local environmental activists to use the site to track the progress of the canal’s cleanup.

Dr. Porfiri recently attended a local community board meeting, where residents asked to add air-quality and salinity sensors to the robot. (It was in part because of residents’ efforts to bring attention to the site that the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 designated the 1.8-mile canal a Superfund site in need of a comprehensive cleanup.)

“The human eye doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. in astronomy,” Dr. Nov said. “There’s no other way to do this besides spending a lot of money on monitoring.”

Eventually, Dr. Nov said, similar robots could be used to monitor conditions in other watery environments, like the Gulf of Mexico after an oil spill. The project has attracted the attention of the E.P.A., which believes data from the rovers could be used to help in the canal’s cleanup.

Dr. Porfiri had been planning a more theoretical project, but when he and his wife moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, more than a year ago and heard about the canal’s Superfund status, he decided the project could have a more practical application. A team of five graduate and undergraduate students built the robot, whose cost was financed by the National Science Foundation, along with its accompanying Web site, and tested its swimming skills in a pool before dropping it into the canal.

“The crane didn’t break; it’s already a major accomplishment,” Dr. Porfiri said, pacing as he watched students lower the Atlantis. He laughed and added, “He’ll have to wear gloves to remove the sling!”

But once it was in the water, nobody seemed in a hurry to take it out again. It spun around, executed a three-point turn, and chugged toward a graffiti-covered bridge nearby. At that moment, it was the only sign of life in the canal.

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Man and Woman Fatally Shot at Bronx Motel

A gunman approached a man and a woman outside a Bronx motel early Saturday, then fatally shot both of them before fleeing, the police and witnesses said.

The 50-year-old man and the 38-year-old woman were declared dead shortly after police officers arrived at the Holiday Motel in Eastchester.

The police did not identify either victim and no arrests had been made by Saturday evening.

A police official said that the man had been standing next to the passenger door of a car that was found in the motel parking lot with the engine running and appeared to have tried to escape. He was found on the ground near the motel entrance, some distance away.

The woman was found lying near the car, the official added.

The two-story motel sits next to the New England Thruway, in a lightly populated pocket of the borough close to the Westchester County border and a few blocks from the last stop on the No. 5 subway line.

A sign in the lobby advertises $40 rates for three-hour stays. Another sign reminds patrons that prostitution, drug use and loitering are prohibited.

A woman who was staying in the motel on Friday evening said that she heard gunshots in the middle of the night. The woman, Keshia Barrett, 36, who said she lives in the Bronx and was staying at the motel with her boyfriend, first heard a pair of shots ring out.

During a brief pause, Ms. Barrett said, she heard a woman scream before the gunshots resumed, followed by silence. The second burst of gunfire sounded closer to her room, Ms. Barrett added.

“I heard the lady screaming and it sounded like she said, ‘Please!’ or ‘No!’ ” Ms. Barrett said. “It was a begging for the life.”

Augustine Mawugbe, 45, a mechanic, said he was sleeping at the motel when gunshots woke him up. He peered through a window, he said, and saw a tall man in a brown shirt carrying a pistol in his right hand, who quickly got into a green or silver colored sedan with New York plates and sped off.

“He drove fast,” said Mr. Mawugbe, adding: “I was shaking.”

The victims were staying in a room on the motel’s second floor, near another room that was being used by about 30 teenagers who had crammed inside to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

One of those at the party, who would identify himself only as Tevin, said he saw the victims near the door to their room at about 10 p.m. They had their arms around each other, he said, and were conspicuous because of their affection and because the woman was holding a bottle in a celebratory fashion.

“We saw the girl come out with a bottle of Champagne with their arms around each other,” he said.

Tevin and others at the party said that they later saw the woman’s body in the parking lot beneath their room.

The teenagers said that chaos erupted in their room when the shooting began, with several young women trying to take cover in the bathtub.

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