Robotic dogs to detect levels of radiation

Thanks to Natalie Jeremijenko, some Yalies may soon find themselves wading ankle-deep in garbage.

A lecturer in Yale’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Jeremijenko recently proposed releasing specially equipped robotic dogs to detect radiation levels at the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, N.Y.

The robotic dogs are part of a course she is in the process of formalizing at Yale — one in which she hopes students will be able to take a more hands-on, real-world approach to engineering and design. The student-designed and produced robots would be outfitted with air-quality sensors and radiation detectors on their noses and Web cameras on their “non-barking ends” for real-time data collection.

This approach belies the fact that Jeremijenko is not your typical scientist.

“I’m primarily interested in the transformative potential of technology, how technological phenomena are also social phenomena,” Jeremijenko said. “Where technology is inserted in society, work gets reorganized in order to exploit and accommodate that new technology.”

An engineer by training and an artist by nature, she has been referred to as anything from data collector to artist-innovator-experimenter. Most often, though, Jeremijenko has been referred to as a techno-artist. Her work caught the attention of The New York Times, which praised her in 1999 as having made “some of the most abstruse and provocative works of techno-art over the last decade.”

“The area of design — that’s a niche that Natalie fills, and we’re excited to have that,” said Marshall Long, the chairman of Mechanical Engineering. “[The robotic dogs project] is probably not the kind of project that we’d see without her here.”

Aside from diversifying Yale’s mechanical engineering program, Jeremijenko hopes to increase the accessibility of what traditionally has been privileged information.

“If you’re a housewife or grandmother or teenager living near a power station, and the EPA releases a 50-page report about the air quality in your area — are you even going to read the report?” Jeremijenko said. “And — even if you do, can you contest it? Reinterpret it? Well, I don’t think so, because in this case, the information is scripted as fact.”

The robotic dogs, on the other hand, would provide the public with easily interpreted information, Jeremijenko said.

“Anyone can understand what the dogs are doing,” she said. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in air quality.”

The planning of the course itself reflects a dramatic evolution in Yale’s engineering studies over the past decade or so.

“Rather than students hunched over problem sets, as might have been the case 15 years ago, we’ve gone to more project-based, team-based, open-ended design problems,” Jeremijenko said.

The choice of Fresh Kills as an initial testing site for the robotic dogs was made based on its proximity and size. All five of the city’s boroughs sent trash to the 2,200-acre dump, making it the world’s largest landfill and one of only a few man-made structures visible from outer space with the naked eye.

Using robotic dogs may be just the first of other unique approaches to solving similar problems.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the opportunities to expose students to these types of projects early on,” Long said. “It’s what’s fun about engineering — the creative aspects of it, building things. And to have a faculty member whose interests center around that represents something new for us and something that’s good for us and good for the students.”

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