George School Student Builds Robot to Monitor Water

Aliea Nallbani, 15, a junior at the George School, is building an underwater robot to help scientists at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association measure the effectiveness of floating wetlands at reducing algae in ponds at an East Windsor retirement community.

Aliea, who lives in Princeton, is doing this venture as an independent study in robotics.

She is adapting a robotics kit with a camera and sensors to measure the nitrogen and phosphate levels at a series of interconnecting ponds at Meadow Lakes, a continuing care retirement community.

She is adding an underwater video camera to the robot to record and observe the root growth and health of the floating wetlands.

She’ is advised by Steve Tuorto, Ph.D., the Watershed’s Director of Science & Stewardship, and Chris Odom and Brian Patton, robotics teachers at the George School.

She said she has been interested in water and marine-health issues from a young age. The independent study allows her to expand her knowledge of the coding language, Arduino, while allowing Aliea to connect her studies with her passion for water-quality issues.

“As I become older, I became cognizant of global warming and the effects of human activities on surrounding lakes and forests. That developed and deepened my knowledge and interest in water-quality issues,” Aliea said. “The Watershed’s project played into my interest in water quality and in keeping our natural bodies of water safe and protected.”

She is modifying an Open ROV version 2.8 robot kit and has launched a crowdsourcing website to raise $2,500 needed to do the measurements.

Last year, Joe Greipp, the arboretum director at Meadow Lakes, reached out to the Watershed and started the process to gain River-Friendly Business Certification.

His goal was cutting the algae blooms in his facility’s waterways with several floating wetlands.

These buoyant plants would reduce the nutrients in the water, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, through their root systems as they grew.

Aliea’s idea was to use her underwater robot as a substitute for the water testing done periodically by a Watershed staffer who paddles out in a kayak to take samples.

“The paddling disturbs the water and may change the values that we’re measuring because we’re moving the water and mixing with the plants,” she said. “Hopefully, with the robot we can cruise more gradually and take more accurate measurements.”

She said once the robot is built, she’ll figure out by trial-and-error what the optimal distance is from the banks and best depth for obtaining readings from the sensors. There will also be a real-time video feed.

“It’s amazing to be working with Aliea on an innovative project like this. An ongoing question in watershed science is how well are our restoration efforts working and how do we gauge their impacts?” Tuorto said. “To have a young person such as Aliea come to us and ask to help answer those questions by creating new technology is very exciting.”