Biobot Analytics Sends Robots into Sewers to Find Health Answers

Biobot Analytics is assisting its first pilot health department in the battle against opioid abuse by measuring the levels of opioid metabolites in wastewater, according to a story in the engineering industry magazine With a test project in Cary, NC, the start-up company based in Somerville, MA expects to help the city in fighting the opioid crisis.

Irene Hu, an engineer at Biobot Analytics, a spin-off company of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said they are using portable devices to collect wastewater samples to analyze in the laboratory. The company will use the data to create spatial maps and charts that can illustrate which neighborhoods have high concentrations of the deadly drug fentanyl, for instance. The city will then target those areas for education and overdose resources, as well as treatment.

“Right now our focus is just analyzing for opioids, because opioid addiction is a major public health crisis,” said Hu, a hardware electronics engineer.

A Biobot Analytics robot is lowered into a sewer to take samples from wastewater. (credit: Biobot Analytics)

As North Carolina’s seventh-largest municipality, Cary is home to 162,000 citizens. Last year, 11 people died and about 60 others overdosed on opioids—a 70 percent increase from the previous year. Those may sound like low numbers, but the opioid epidemic has devastated other communities that were slow to act. Early reports have already shown a higher than expected level of naloxone (Narcan), a drug used to prevent opioid overdoses.

Hu talked about the project at the IoT–Smart Networks and Social Innovations panel, held in May during the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit in San Diego. You can watch the session on

CEO Mariana Matus, Ph.D. spoke to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about sewage and the future of public health.

“In the next 5 to 10 years, I can’t imagine that any major city will not incorporate sewage data into their decision-making,” Matus said.

Sewage will be where antibiotic-resistant viruses could spread, not to mention where health departments could learn information about populations. The Centers for Disease Control is funding research on viruses, using wastewater. In 2013, health authorities in Israel successfully stopped a polio outbreak by pushing vaccinations after detecting the virus in wastewater⏤before anyone developed symptoms.

Biobot Analytics captured the attention of, which ranked it number 4 of 50 women-owned tech start-ups to watch in its February 20, 2019 edition.