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Sensorbot project brings together ASU, Washington researchers

January 23, 2012

Editor's Note: Arizona State University basketball will take on the University of Washington on Jan. 26. The men’s teams will play at 6:30 p.m., in Tempe. The women's team will play Washington State at 7 p.m. in Pullman, Wash. Read more about ASU's collaborations with Pac-12 schools.

Sensorbots, spherical devices equipped with biogeochemical sensors, promise to open a new chapter in the exploration of earth’s largest ecosystem – the ocean. The devices are being designed and developed in the laboratory of Deirdre Meldrum, senior scientist and director of the Center for Biosignatures Discovery Automation at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute. 

In 2001, Meldrum’s group was awarded an $18 million grant for a National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence in Genomics Science, which led to the establishment of the Microscale Life Sciences Center – currently headquartered at the Biodesign Institute. The grant was subsequently renewed.  

Meldrum’s center brings together researchers in electrical, mechanical, chemical, and bio- engineering, chemistry, computer science, materials science, laboratory medicine and microbiology as well as personnel from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, University of Washington and Brandeis University.

Together, they work on developing microscale devices to analyze cells and their DNA, RNA, and proteins to understand and eventually diagnose or prevent diseases such as cancer and inflammation.  

To accomplish this, Meldrum and her colleagues develop microscale modules to measure multiple parameters in living cells in real time in order to correlate cellular events with genomic information. The Sensorbot project significantly expands the scope of oceanographic investigations.

They can be deployed by the hundreds, travel in formation, and communicate together for exploration and discovery. The Sensorbots will enable continuous spatiotemporal monitoring of key elements in the ocean and the ability to respond to events such as underwater earthquakes and hydrothermal vents.

Cody Youngbull and Joseph Chao, assistant research professors, are both integral members of the Sensorbot team and have spent years developing the technology. In the summer of 2011, they took the Sensorbots to the deep ocean, aboard the Thomas G. Thompson, a global-class research vessel operated by the University of Washington.

The ambitious Sensorbot project is utilizing the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative – in particular, the Regional Scale Nodes (RSN) project, led by John Delaney, professor at the University of Washington. This far-flung endeavor involves the construction of a cabled underwater observatory in the northeast Pacific Ocean, off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate.

The current Sensorbots are fist-sized transparent robotic orbs, which communicate via brilliant blue flashes of light. The spheres house electronics and batteries, while their surfaces have three sensors for measuring pH, temperature or oxygen. Sensorbots report surrounding environmental conditions to the inner electronics that convert the signal into flashes of light, providing a sort of visual Morse code. 

A high-speed camera situated on the seafloor picks up the signals and stores them for later decoding aboard the ship.

Adapted from an article by Richard Harth.