Last year, Typhoon Haiyan leveled an entire city in the Philippines, killing thousands. While Haiyan is one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record, the Philippines and other Pacific rim countries are continually pounded with storms that are only getting worse with global warming. The damage caused by these storms extends beyond their violent wrath—the aftermath of floodwaters and the consequent water-borne illnesses present another wave of problems.

In 2012, after one of these typhoons wreaked havoc in the Philippines, Paul Scerri and his team at Platypus responded to a call for help in looking at the floodwaters. A Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute spin-off, Scerri’s company makes low-cost robots out of Android phones. They deployed five of these robotic boats. The boats used the cameras on the Android phones to look for people who may still be needing assistance.

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Why an Android phone? Scerri explains that “the arduino board at the heart of an Android phone is the perfect brain for a low-cost robot. Plus Androids are cheap, robust and already come with some very useful native capabilities: a GPS, two to three modes of communication, even a compass.”

Platypus is currently building robotic boats for many environmental applications. “We are looking at a range of applications—from measuring the depths and levels of rivers in Kenya to looking at water quality so we can detect water-borne disease such as cholera and dysentery.”

The vision for Platypus is to work with public and private organizations to help tackle threats and problems with our most basic of needs: water.

“We’d really like to change the way people think about collecting water data, it shouldn’t be something expensive and difficult, so we make decisions without necessary information.  We want collecting data about water to be something cheap and easy, so as a society we can make informed decisions about our use of and care for our precious water resources.”