Civic News

Brooklyn Atlantis citizen science project uses robot boats in Gowanus

Part of the citizen science movement that crowdsources field research, a team at NYU-Poly is working on Brooklyn Atlantis, which is using robotic boats to monitor and record data about the Gowanus Canal's famously polluted waters

The project team includes Oded Nov, Maurizio Porfiri, Vladislav Kopman, Jeffrey Laut, Emiliano Henry, Jarred Humphrey, Fausto Del Sette, and William Quigley. Brooklyn Atlantis alumni: Sohan Gharpure, Yuwen Memon, Aditya Guntupalli, Nitin Narasimhan, Shamanth Turuvekere Shivakumaraswamy, Kshitij Nagpal, Vivin Raj, Jakub Cichon and Matthew Conte, and Manjunath Tumkur Maheshchandra. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Atlantis

Citizen Science is a great way to get normal people engaged in the work of understanding our world.

For residents who live near a stunningly polluted waterway — like, say, the gross Gowanus Canal — it might also be a way to help locals understand just how much the quality of nearby waterways should concern them.

One such project from a team at NYU-Poly is Brooklyn Atlantis, which is using robotic boats to monitor and record data about the Gowanus waters — though the site might leave something to be desired in terms of direction for its would-be citizen scientists. The goal, though, is an interesting one.

From a story in The New York Times:

“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. [Maurizio] Porfiri is a robotics and mechanics expert who has conducted experiments with robotic fish, while Dr. Oded Nov studies the interactions between humans and machines.

The story suggests that Dr. Porfiri initiated the project, giving its origin this way:

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 the robot’s swimming skills in a pool before dropping it into the canal.

The Brooklyn Atlantis site enlists Internet users in helping the team to tag the photos their robot boat is taking, both on the water’s surface and underwater. You can click anywhere on the photo and add a tag of anything you like.

The project could stand for a bit more direction for users on what they should look for in their tagging. There’s some nuance that their instructional video lacks. A quick tour of the page’s forum shows that many of the citizen scientists have similar questions, but then, that seems to show just how new the citizen science movement is.


The project still lists itself as beta, so maybe some of these questions are in the works, but most of the forum posts are more than a year old and the most recent photos are from March.

Here’s one project video that might be most interesting for showing a robot boat in the rather nasty-looking water of the Gowanus.

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