This Is My Child

A new study out of Purdue University is the first of its kind to use a bionic baby to study how infants breathe what’s inches from their faces: The gunk trapped in your carpet.

Turns out, babies inhale all of that dirt, dead skin cells, bacteria, pollen, and fungal spores at four times the rate of a walking adult.

To study this, the researchers built a robotic baby that crawls along a carpet. Despite looking like a nicely wrapped bodega egg and cheese on a roll, the design serves a purpose: It mimics the movement of a human baby. Clumsy little hands pound the floor, while the back legs drag along.

It moves kind of like a toy robot dog, with the back legs hacked off and covered in tinfoil. Lead researcher Brandon Boor assured me that there is not, in fact, a dismembered aibo under that aluminum. He told me that his metallic child weighs a little under nine pounds, and is propelled forward with a UNO and Arduino motor. It’s lined with aluminum to minimize the accumulation of electrostatic charge as it drags its butt along the carpet. They want a science baby, not a lightning bolt baby.

Sensors on the robo-baby detect what junk is stirred up from the fibers of the carpet, based on factors like lift and drag of the air, electrostatic repulsion of particles, and vibrational forces. They found that concentrations of particles form around them, at as much as 20 times greater than the levels of material higher in the room—say, at adult height. And human babies’ upper respiratory systems are bad at blocking these dusty particles out, because they breathe through their mouths more often. The particles end up deposited in the deepest reaches of the lungs.

This sounds gross and bad, but the research isn’t definitive on whether it’s harmful for babies to be exposed to allergens. “Many studies have shown that inhalation exposure to microbes and allergen-carrying particles in that portion of life plays a significant role in both the development of, and protection from, asthma and allergic diseases,” Boor said in a press release. “There are studies that have shown that being exposed to a high diversity and concentration of biological materials may reduce the prevalence of asthma and allergies later in life.”

At least this poor, cursed, aluminum son won’t suffer the effects of allergens in its robo-lungs.