A Robot Canary Tests Dangerous Air

Toxic dust from spray-painting, sandblasting, and asbestos removal can lead to ills ranging from lead poisoning to lung damage. Pressurized masks or suits are supposed to keep the dust out, but they can fail if they leak or if the pressure inside is too low. To test protective gear, San Diego State University Professor Behzad Samimi puts it on a robot he has built named "Dusty" that mimics human breathing and motion in simulated unhealthy environments.

Dusty moves around a chamber breathing sand or paint blasted by a generator. The robot evaluates how the hood's protection is affected by dust levels, air flow, deep or shallow breathing, and motion. Samimi estimates that a company concerned about worker safety would have to spend about $25,000 to add a Dusty to its staff. He says data generated by the robot has already been used in court cases.