It’s always interesting to come across something that kills two birds with one stone. You wouldn’t think that neglected robotic puppies and old toxic dump sites had anything in common. As it happens with these two problems, one can be used to solve the other.
They’re not Sony Aibos; they’re lesser breeds, like the Jimmy Neutron Goddard dog, the i-Cybie dog from Tiger Toys, the Baby Rocket Puppy from Fisher Price, and many others. Ranging in price from as little as $5 to as much as $50, these little guys are loved and played with for a while, but like any toy, they become familiar and even boring eventually. Since they’re robots, they don’t starve or act up when they don’t get attention; they simply sit on a shelf or in a toy box gathering dust.
That’s not exactly insidious, but here’s something that is: industrial waste and contamination. Areas that were used for a long time in industry may still be emitting dangerous pollution after being cleaned up. Consider the Mission Bay landfill site in San Diego. It has a 50+ year history as an industrial waste dumping ground used by military and industry in the immediate area. Other areas have histories that are not so well known. How do you bring attention to this issue, especially when developers are getting ready to construct a new community (complete with school) on the land?
That’s where Professor Natalie Jeremijenko comes in. While a director of the Engineering Design Studio at Yale University, Professor Jeremijenko realized that no longer loved robotic pets could be turned into mobile detectors of toxins. Modified with sensors in their noses, these cute pooches could literally “sniff out” a toxic trail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as coal tar.
At the very least, Professor Jeremijenko’s students would have no problems getting dogs. “People who get toy robot dogs don’t play with them for long,” she explained at last year’s O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. “We take in a lot of abandoned robotic dogs. The entertainment lasts 15 minutes and then they’re boring.”
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