Science & Technology

Envirobot Swims Like an Eel to Help Save the World

If, in the first scene of a movie, you watched a group of scientists build a robot based on an eel and release it into the waterways, you could be pretty sure how that movie would end — probably with the hero grappling with an enraged octo-bot. But this little guy isn't trying to take over the world. It's trying to save it.

Meet the Envirobot

Built by the Biorobotics Lab at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Envirobot has one mission: to track down pollution where it lives in the water. In 2017, it began its new assignment on Switzerland's Lake Geneva.

The goal? To gather real-time environmental data on the health of the lake, from identifying foreign particles to carefully monitoring the water's pH balance. Eventually, anyway. For now, the 3D-printed 'bot is still getting its sea legs (metaphorically) and learning how best to navigate the water.

"Most of the time, when we actually have some problem happening in the robot, it comes from a leakage," Envirobot team member Alessandro Crespi told Atlas Obscura. That's an issue for a robot that hopes to go underwater someday. For now, it has to stick to the surface. It also has some issues with traveling beyond its home base — send it too far, and you have to go and pick it up yourself.

Envirobot is designed to be adaptable. Each of its modules comes empty, ready to be loaded with whatever electrical, chemical, and biological sensors a scientist might want. In one specific case, when we say "biological", we mean biological.

All Aboard the Eel Train

In all the high-tech gear onboard the Envirobot, there's one group of prospective passengers that are basically the furthest thing: Daphnia. These transparent little crustaceans are champs of assessing pollution levels, and the contamination of a water source can be determined by checking out their heartbeats and eating patterns under a microscope (and since they're transparent, it's a piece of cake to check out their heartbeat). Soon, one of Envirobot's modules will be full of the things, and researchers will be one step closer to cleaning up Lake Geneva and other waterways for good.

Envirobot, the Robotic Eel

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 20, 2017

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