4 Robots That Are Saving the World

Smart machines help fix humanity's ecological screwups.

By Brittany Grayson
Sep 7, 2007 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:17 AM


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In some of science fiction's most influential stories, Isaac Asimov laid out three laws of robotics, the first of which was that "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." He later added a law that said robots must also protect humanity as a whole.

Judging by some recent robotic creations, it may be time to add another law: "A robot may not harm the environment. While they're at it, they might as well start helping fix the place up a bit."

Recently, researchers have created a small army of robots that work side by side with scientists to steward the planet better. They are helping biologists detect toxins, explore remote environments, and learn about endangered species. They do work that is too inaccessible, dangerous, or just plain boring for us weakling carbon-based life forms.

A male sage grouse displays for the fembot as she trundles along her railroad-like tracks. | Image courtesy of Neil Losin

Secret Agent Fembots

In Isaac Asimov’s short story “—That Thou Art Mindful of Him,” engineers attempt to acclimate humans to robots by creating robots that look like birds and insects and also detect and correct ecological problems.

Thirty-seven years later, Asimov looks like Nostradamus.

Gail Patricelli, an ecologist at the University of California at Davis, is leading the bird-robot revolution. She studies the sage grouse, a bird native to the American West that looks like a miniature turkey and has a wacky love life. The male attempts to impress females by puffing up two yellow air sacs in the white fluff of his chest, the inflation and deflation of which produce an odd blooping sound. Meanwhile, he struts before a group of female sage grouse. If his strutting, inflation, and noise-making are impressive enough, one female will approach him and—after more strutting, inflating, and noise—mate with him.

Sage grouse are on the decline, and scientists think that (in addition to habitat loss) the problem may be that noise pollution from natural gas development in their native areas across the western United States interferes with successful mating. Patricelli set out to measure how sage grouse use noise in their mating displays: If calls were obscured by background noise, would the grouse mate less? To find out, she needed to put herself in the female sage grouse’s shoes (as it were) to record what they hear and see during male displays. So she built the world’s first sage grouse fembot.

The robot is a metal frame covered with a real sage grouse skin. It's “a combination of arts and crafts, engineering, and taxidermy,” Patricelli says. She directs the fembot to watch the males' displays and uses its onboard microphone and video camera to measure what role sound plays. “We can basically get inside the head of a female,” she says. If sound pollution is causing a problem, Patricelli and her team plan to work with local conservation agencies to mitigate the effects.

Other researchers have also created functional robotic cowbirds, turkey chicks, and even bees and cockroaches.

“It’s getting easier to do. Most of the parts we used were available online,” Patricelli says. “If you decide you’re interested in animal behavior and you want to build a model, you sit down and figure it out with Lego Mindstorms.”

The Saint Louis Zoo uses three different sizes of telemetric eggs (shown without their coat of camouflage paint) in their waterfowl nests. | Image courtesy of Saint Louis Zoo, Karen Bauman

Robo Eggs Can Fool Even a Mother

Passive robots in the form of sedentary animals may be less flashy than a bird skin stretched over a robotic frame, but they can be just as good at keeping tabs on their environment—and significantly less nasty.

Take for instance the computerized eggs that the Calgary Zoo in Canada is using to try to bring back the critically endangered whooping crane. All whooping cranes alive today are the descendants* of only 16 cranes alive in the 1930s, says Tian Everest, conservation research program coordinator at the zoo. “Each whooping crane egg is incredibly valuable,” she says. “Whooping cranes exist today in large part because of the captive breeding program. And of all the stages of captive breeding, incubation is one of the least well understood.”

Everest and other biologists increase birth rates by taking eggs away from the nest as soon as the mother lays them. The mother, thinking that her egg has disappeared, will go on to produce as many as six eggs rather than just one. These abducted eggs are raised by hand in an aviary, and the birds will later learn to migrate by following an ultralight plane rather than their parents. Biologists noticed that eggs watched by their parents—or even by foster sandhill crane parents—hatched more successfully than eggs in the incubators.

“We’re using these [telemetric] eggs to teach us how cranes incubate their eggs, so we can mimic [the process] in the incubators,” Everest says. The telemetric eggs, sized and painted to look just like whooping crane eggs, continually measure their ambient temperature and humidity, record how often the parent turns the eggs, and use a light sensor to detect when the eggs are being sat upon.

The National Zoo uses similar telemetric eggs to infiltrate the nests of kori bustards and flamingos, while the St. Louis Zoo does the same with endangered waterfowl and Humboldt penguins.

Eggs aren’t the only robotic biomonitors sitting around. Brian Helmuth of the University of South Carolina uses thermometers tucked inside mussel shells to study how global warming affects coastal invertebrates. These robo-mussels pick up on how the animal’s shell interacts with sun, wind, and tide to determine its body temperature—a subtle point that a plain old thermometer would miss.

*Correction, September 12, 2007: The article originally confused "ancestors" with "descendants."

The New Doggy Treat: Poisonous Chemicals

Natalie Jeremijenko of New York University leads groups of students in creating robotic dogs to sniff out chemical pollutants. Each student chooses a commercially available dog robot, like HasBro's iDog or Sony’s defunct Aibo, and customizes it to detect certain toxic chemicals. Classes program their dogs to work in packs. When released on a site, the dogs communicate among themselves and compare signals. The dog with the strongest scent becomes the temporary leader of the pack until another dog picks up a stronger scent. This continues until the dogs locate the spot with the highest concentration of whatever toxic chemical they are sniffing out.

The virtue of the project is that it not only traces toxic substances, Jeremijenko says, but also gets people interested in toxic waste detection and cleanup. “The kids themselves have a lot of fun with the theatrics of the dogs,” she says. “The packs sit when they hit a certain level [of chemical contamination]. Or they’ll bark the national anthem. Or they’ll fall over and play dead.” The sight of the dogs sniffing out toxic levels of chemicals helps students understand and explain to their communities the distribution of toxic waste.

Jeremijenko has bred 10 packs of dogs in places as diverse as Arizona, Dublin, and the Bronx, New York. Currently she’s creating a curriculum that will help educators proliferate the chemical-tracking canines throughout classrooms worldwide.

Other researchers have placed similar robots, in the form of lobsters and lampreys, on the seafloor, and Jeremijenko hopes to have still more varieties hopping, slithering, and climbing their way into the environment soon.

Robots Don't Blink

Sometimes all a biologist needs is a pair of eyes watching the sky. Humans, imperfect lookouts that we are, are prone to distraction, especially when being drowned, baked by a hot southern sun, or bitten by poisonous snakes. Robots are resistant to these human frailties, which is why they’re perfect for scrutinizing the patch of Arkansas swamp where an ivory-billed woodpecker—a bird scientists thought had been extinct for decades—may have been spotted in 2005. “Robots don’t blink,” says Ken Goldberg, an engineer at the University of California at Berkeley.

After hearing of the ivory-billed woodpecker sighting in a notoriously inhospitable swamp, Goldberg contacted biologists at Cornell University and offered his help. He and Dezhen Song, a computer scientist at Texas A&M University, built an autonomous camera to keep an eye on the sky. A pair of cameras continuously records video of the swamp and can distinguish birds from airplanes, drifting leaves, and trees waving in the wind. They store images of birds and each month a researcher in a canoe paddles out to retrieve the data. Eventually, the cameras will be able to send them back to Song electronically.

The system hasn't found its quarry since it was set up last October. But ornithologists suspect that the woodpecker’s extreme skittishness has kept it under the radar for decades, so the robot may have a better chance than a relatively noisy and impatient scientist.

Goldberg and Song hope to soon set up cameras to record grizzly bears in Alaska, gorillas in Rwanda, and giant pandas in China.

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