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Luigi the robot ventures into the sewers so you don't have to

People worry about robots taking away our jobs, but the truth is that there are some jobs we should be pretty darn glad machines are ready and willing to perform on our behalf.

One such task? Finding out more about bacteria, viruses, and the chemical compounds that live in the human gut by analyzing sewer water. That’s the goal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Underworlds project, currently being tested in Cambridge.

Underworlds’ hidden weapon? A robot named Luigi, capable of acting as a smart, remote-controlled sampling pole by venturing into manholes, controlled via iPhone app. It’s the first of what MIT hopes will one day be an entire fleet of autonomous sewer-sampling gadgets in its smart sewer system.

“The Luigi sampling robot is helping us scale up collection from many locations,” Professor Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the principal investigator of Underworlds, told Digital Trends. “Current sampling technology allows us to collect multiple discrete samples, as composites or grabs. Our sampling technology is pushing this further by onboarding some of the preprocessing onto the sampler.

“Rather than taking liters of raw sewage to the wet lab, we’re able to begin the filtration process of fecal and urinary matter in situ. We’re also building a communications infrastructure to allow our sampling instruments to communicate remotely with the cloud, uploading basic mechanical and environmental data to a central server. Eventually we hope to onboard pathogen-specific detection to build out a real-time, or close to real-time, biochemical detection platform.”

Like his Super Mario Bros. plumber namesake, Luigi’s job may not always be glamorous, but it’s certainly going to be immensely valuable when it comes to helping its researchers gather the kind of insights they’re hoping for.

“The robot has been customized to meet the requirements of the bio team: the pumping force is small so we don’t disrupt bacterial cells, the materials are compatible with metabolomics work, it is modular in the sense that you can plug in a collection bottle or a filter of interest, and it is economic and easy to build and use so it can be scaled up to cover many locations,” Eric Alm, associate professor of biological engineering at MIT and a co-principal investigator of Underworlds, told Digital Trends.

With plans to expand the Underworlds project to greater Boston and, further afield, Kuwait City later in 2016, it seems Luigi’s work has only just begun.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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