Here Come the Decabots

Erin Guthrie ’18, Scot Tomer M.S. ’21, and their swarm of small test robots lead the charge in sniffing out pollution.

Here Come the Decabots
Decabots in the lab: Training to hunt pollutants, they scan large printouts for grayscale levels to test adaptive navigation software. Photography by Charles Barry View full image

In fields, fertilizer helps crops grow. When it arrives as runoff in the ocean off California’s central coast, the results are damaging: Nitrogen-rich fertilizer depletes oxygen in the water, causing fish kills and excessive growth of algae. That’s where the decabots come in, Erin Guthrie ’18 explains

Through a Kuehler Undergraduate Research grant, Guthrie is working with a team of graduate students led by Scot Tomer M.S. ’21 to develop adaptive navigation technology for a group of ten small test robots nicknamed decabots (deca=ten). Here’s how the technology works: Equipped with pollutant-detecting sensors, a group of robots are released into an area; they collectively detect differences in pollution levels and adjust their search pattern. “The end goal for this could be finding pollution sources,” she says.

The project started years ago and builds year-to-year—standing on the shoulders of tiny giants, as it were. The grant allowed Guthrie to join this summer and help build a test bed for the land-based decabots in Guadalupe Hall. Guthrie is also developing her own swarm techniques for the robots. And the technology is adaptable to flying drones, land robots, and small boats—all capable of various applications.

Erin Guthrie ’18 holding a decabot in the lab in Guadalupe Hall.Photography by Charles Barry
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