“Why an MIT Robot is Collecting Poop from Our Sewers”
by Cynthia Graber
Boston Globe Magazine, January 19, 2017
Luigi sinks down Boston area sewers, leaving the street behind as he dips into the wastewater underground. Once there, he captures fresh samples flushed from homes and businesses nearby, then carries the remains back up to the surface for investigation and analysis. And he’s the ideal candidate for this thankless, foul-smelling job: Luigi is a robot.
Developed by a team at MIT as part of Carlo Ratti’s Senseable City Lab, Luigi is the star of Underworlds, a project that promises to mine our waste for valuable health and human behavior data: what viruses are we shedding; what chemicals, both pharmaceutical and illicit, pass through us; what biochemical signals are released by our bodies that hint at our overall health. Newsha Ghaeli, the project manager, says that Luigi could help cities monitor for outbreaks of diseases before patients show up in the local hospitals. Scientists could evaluate what medicines people are taking to monitor public health. They could potentially even measure biomarkers of conditions such as obesity and diabetes.
While other researchers have conducted sewage epidemiology, it has largely been sampled at the wastewater treatment facility, which aggregates the entire city or region. In a preliminary Underworlds study, the team was able to demonstrate the benefit of Luigi and his fellow robots, as they could detect significantly more gut bacteria in a local Cambridge sewer than at the Deer Island treatment center.
Until now, Ghaeli said, few scientists sampled at manhole sites, because it’s messy and dirty and difficult to accomplish. Luigi obviates these issues. Ghaeli told me they’re now developing sensors that Luigi will carry down into the sewers, so that some of the biochemical assays can be done real-time, on location.
This fall, the team is rolling out their first large-scale testing involving the sewer-diving robots. In one study, they’ll be sampling 12 locations throughout Boston and Cambridge, as well as three in Kuwait (because of a funding partnership there) for the last two weeks in October to understand the differences among the sites. In another study, the team will analyze one site every two weeks until Christmas in order to understand changes over time. For that study, the site encompasses the entire MIT campus: Will Ghaeli and her colleagues be able to tell, for instance, whether students get sick more frequently around exam time?
The MIT sewage project was described in the Boston Globe Ideas section in January 2015, before the robot was even developed. Now is the perfect time to write a feature for Boston-area readers. I’ll be able to follow along with the robots, the sampling, and the research project over the next few months, and follow up after the information is analyzed. I’ll be able to spend time in the lab to see how the team is developing the appropriate sensors for the robots, ones that can survive the harsh sewer environments and detect the signals the team wants to read.
While Ghaeli and her colleagues are particularly interested in how this approach can help monitor and even improve public health, city employees have already approached the team with possible additional uses for Luigi. The City of Boston, for instance, has spent a great deal of money investigating illegal hook-ups into the city’s stormwater drains. These are funneled straight into the Charles River, bypassing the flow to the Deer Island treatment facility. The city wants to know if the sewage draining into the river is duck or human; if it’s duck, they can stop wasting money. “This is a super simple study for us to do,” said Ghaeli. There are, she says, applications for the robotic sewer diver that the team hasn’t yet dreamed up.
I’ve written for the Boston Globe magazine a number of times in the past, including this article on regenerative medicine, as well as this one about fishing boat monitor systems. Recent articles include a Wired magazine essay on genetic testing and a feature in Cook’s Science about an obsession-inducing mold. I’m also co-host of the award-winning podcast Gastropod, about the science and history of food, and I’ve long been fascinated by sewage treatment.
This fall/early winter is the perfect time to watch the robots disappear into sewers in the Boston area and follow the team as they test the new systems out. What do you think?
Thanks for your consideration,