Environmental Factor, August 2007, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Air-Sampling Robot on Florida Beach
By Eddy Ball
During the second weekend of September, visitors to a public beach at Siesta Key near Sarasota, Fla. were treated to something entirely new as a funny looking foot-long machine raced across the sand. What sunbathers witnessed was a first in environmental monitoring - a small roving air-sampling robot capable of detecting concentrations of airborne particles just above ground level that can cause respiratory problems.
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School researcher Stuart Shalat, Sc.D., had traveled south to test a sensor he created as part of work co-funded by NIEHS R01 and PO1 grants. His technology is now being used as part of ongoing studies of health effects related to Florida Red Tide at Siesta Key, the site of a 2005 outbreak. When inhaled at high enough concentrations by beachgoers, the toxin produced by the algal blooms that create red tide in coastal waters can cause respiratory problems, especially in people with asthma.
Wielding his specialized air sampler, Shalat set out to establish baseline measurements for a focused investigation of the health effects of red tide on an especially vulnerable population, very young children six to twelve months old. He will compare the results to samples he plans to collect when there is another outbreak.
Called "PIPER," for "Pre-Toddler Inhalable Particulate Environmental Robotic" Sampler, the device can mimic a toddler's environmental exposures by collecting samples through air intakes that are adjustable from 20 to 50 centimeters (approximately 8 inches to 20 inches) above the surface.
The robot's size is important, according to Shalat, because levels of particulates at a toddler's level can be much greater than they are at five or six feet above a surface. Particles from soil, sand or dust that is disturbed can be "re-suspended" and enter a toddler's environment, although they may pose no threat to adults and older children.
When particulates begin to settle outside the range of an adult's environment, they can still remain a hazard for small children who crawl along a surface. Toddlers are also especially vulnerable to contaminants "entrained" or tracked into houses by beachgoers.
The PIPER resembles a wheeled erector-set truck with a long adjustable neck-like crane - a kind of miniature steel giraffe on wheels. The body contains a chamber where air samples are deposited on filters for analysis later in a laboratory. The autonomous robot is self-propelled and can be programmed to follow a set pattern of movement around an area.
The prototype was built at a cost of approximately $2,000 for parts. According to Shalat's grant application, the PIPER was originally proposed for detecting indoor allergens and toxins. However, the machine has performed well on playgrounds and on the level Florida beach where it sped along on its tiny tractor-like tires.
Shalat is collaborating with NIEHS P01 grantee and veteran Florida Red Tide researcher Dan Baden, Ph.D. Shalat's RO1 grant is administered through the Division of Extramural Research and Training by Health Science Administrator Kimberly Gray, Ph.D.
Working together across disciplines, oceanographers, chemists, toxicologists, public health specialists, physicians and biomedical scientists approach the problem in a "beach to bedside" manner. In addition to NIEHS, the partnership includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Florida Department of Health, the University of Miami, the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, New Mexico, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Mote Environmental Services.