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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