Tech by VICE

Let Loose the Pollution-Sniffing Robot Eels

The robot uses luminous bacteria and plankton to detect freshwater contaminants.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 26 2017, 10:00am

Switzerland's Lake Geneva has attracted many notable figures to its shores over the centuries, from Mary Shelley to Freddie Mercury. But its newest illustrious resident, a pollutant-sniffing robot eel named Envirobot, is in a class all its own.

GIF: École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne/YouTube

Swishing around the lake like an aquatic snake or eel, Envirobot is prototypical mobile water inspector that can deliver real-time temperature, conductivity, and contamination readings through its motorized segmented body, which measures 1.5 meters (about five feet) long.

The eelbot is part of the Nano-Tera Program, a Swiss governmental initiative intended to stimulate nanotechnological innovations, and involves researchers from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, the University of Lausanne, the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. The prototype has already been deployed for several test swims.

Video: École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne/YouTube

"The goal of the project is to measure pollution directly in the lake," said Jan Roelof van der Meer, Envirobot project coordinator and the department head of fundamental microbiology at the University of Lausanne, in the above video.

Naturally, van der Meer and his colleagues cannot dump a bunch of toxic waste into Lake Geneva to hash out the robot's capabilities, but they did treat a small area of the lake with salt, and successfully taught Envirobot how to detect resulting shifts in water conductivity.

Each module linked into the robot's serpentine frame contains different sensors or experiments, and its length can be easily shortened or extended depending on its mission parameters.

Read More: Pits of Robotic Sea Snakes Will Lurk at Offshore Drilling Sites

Some of the robot's modules use living organisms as toxin detectors. One segment is filled with bacteria bred to be luminous when the culture comes into contact with mercury in laboratory swim tests. Another uses two samples of small planktonic crustaceans, with one population in a sealed compartment of clean water and the other exposed to the water surrounding Envirobot. Comparing the behavioral reactions of the groups, such as relative sluggishness, can yield insights into water quality.

Envirobot researchers Alessandro Crespi and Behzad Bayat. Image: © Alain Herzog/2017 EPFL

Eventually, the team hopes to produce an autonomous version of Envirobot that could roam aquatic habitats without human direction, honing in on a variety of dangerous pollutants.

It seems fitting that some 200 years after Mary Shelley sat down next to Lake Geneva to write Frankenstein, considered by some to be the foundational text of science fiction, there's now a robot eel made in part of living science experiments mucking about in the water.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.