The New York Times, 06/26/03
Are Toxins Astir? Release the Hounds

By Mark Glassman | web link

Jesse Arnold took his dog to the park on Saturday, hovering over it with an umbrella to shield it from the rain. Water would kill it, or at least short it out.

That's because the dog is a robot. It is also part of a multidisciplinary research project at Yale University that upgrades low-end robotic toys to sniff out environmental toxins.

Giving a robot an overhaul is in this case faster, easier, and less expensive than building one from scratch. The total cost of each refinished dog is about $100, a price that includes spare parts purchased from and eBay. The original robot is a toy with a retail value of about $30.

"A lot of people think: 'Oh, this can't be serious research -- they're just toys,"' said Natalie Jeremijenko, the project leader and a lecturer in the mechanical engineering department at Yale. "But these are for a higher purpose."

By sending out the overhauled toys to detect pollutants in different areas around the country, Ms. Jeremijenko aims to draw local attention to environmental hazards.

"What the dogs provide is an opportunity for displaying some evidence that, certainly, experts can interpret, but that local community members can interpret as well," she said.

On Saturday, Mr. Arnold, a research assistant at Yale, was testing how well the dogs would move and detect toxins on wet ground at Cement Plant Park in the Bronx. The park is named for the abandoned cement factory that rusts on its shore, adjacent to the Bronx River.

The park is also next to Starlight Park, a dilapidated site contaminated underground by toxins known as volatile organic compounds that could evaporate into a breathable gas, according to a report released last year by the New York State Department of Environment Conservation. Both parks are near a manufactured gas plant that closed more than 70 years ago.

Over the last year, Mr. Arnold and Will Kavesh, another research assistant at Yale, worked with middle- and high-school students from the Bronx to upgrade the dogs to handle rough or slippery terrain and detect toxins. "We're going to find an area, and we're going to kill a dog," Mr. Arnold, 28, said, before he released the robot into the downpour. He knew the dog could detect and withstand noxious chemicals, but a June shower was another matter. So the rain shifted the focus from detecting toxic hot spots to monitoring the dog's performance under umbrellas and on a wet surface.

As the dog's gears began to whirl, a minivan full of students who had helped construct similar dogs watched and smiled. Other onlookers saluted the dog with a brief rendition of "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

The chassis for the dog came from the Megabyte, a remote-controlled dog made by Wow Wee ( and one of at least 13 such models on the market.

The students replaced the dogs' front legs with two heavy-duty tires designed originally for remote-controlled cars. A smaller wheel took the place of the hind legs. Two round chemical sensors were installed on the dogs' lower jaws, suggesting the bolts of the Frankenstein monster. The sensors detect concentrations of toxic compounds.

"The amount of the substance present actually controls the speed and direction of the dog," Mr. Kavesh said.

Under Mr. Arnold's umbrella, the first dog survived the rain and began circling a small puddle. The team released another dog with a translucent orange body.

Both dogs eventually homed in on a large puddle, a suggestion that rainwater could be driving toxins toward the surface.

Inside the Bronx River Arts Center, where students had assembled the robots, a third dog was released for a demonstration on a smooth dry floor. The dog sailed effortlessly around the main exhibition hall.

The robots are well-traveled, having visited Florida and the Netherlands. Ms. Jeremijenko is beginning to seek financing and volunteers for a trip to Baghdad with a new group of dogs programmed to hunt for traces of gamma radiation.

Even if the dogs were to close in on a source of radiation in Iraq, they would not necessarily see much more than weapons inspectors have. The dogs' eyes face backward toward the people who follow it, so that the robots can be more interactive with their users. "The camera is actually in the nonbarking end," Ms. Jeremijenko said.

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