Innovation

8 ways robots may transform urban nature

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As people worldwide flock to cities and those cities themselves continue to expand, there’s increasing reason to worry about the effect on the natural environment.

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In a new study from the University of Leeds, researchers polled 170 experts from around the world to determine the biggest ways robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) could affect how people interact with urban green spaces and natural areas around cities.

Here are 8 areas most likely to be transformed.

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1. Urban land use

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Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles and fewer personal vehicles could change the way cities plan transport infrastructure.

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Fewer roads and driveways could mean more room for parks and other green spaces.

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However, more efficient transit could also increase sprawl, as people could move farther from their workplaces while maintaining a comfortable commute.

2. Infrastructure management

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Smart buildings that can regulate their own energy use and maintain heat could keep cities more efficient and more comfortable.

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RAS could also maintain green spaces by providing automated irrigation and monitoring soil conditions.

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However, scientists also warn that that could lead to a more heterogeneous environment, as RAS would be best at maintaining groups of plants with the same basic needs.

3. Interaction with nature

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RAS could give people more opportunities to interact with urban nature and make cities more pleasant places overall.

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Automated building repairs could lead to less construction noise and reduce congestion and pollution from current construction vehicles.

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Autonomous vehicles could give disadvantaged groups more opportunity to travel through cities and even be programmed to travel more scenic routes.

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On the other hand, autonomous transit could reduce people’s awareness of their surroundings and automated deliveries could mean less reason for people to leave their homes.

4. Environmental monitoring

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RAS could speed up data collection on biodiversity and other environmental conditions, especially in hard-to-reach areas.

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There is a danger that data collected autonomously could be limited or misinterpreted, particularly on intangible environmental factors and hard-to-identify species.

5. Pest management

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RAS could detect and monitor pests and invasive species in cities better than humans alone.

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But automated pest control has the potential to target the wrong species, especially if it’s carried out without an understanding of how complex ecosystems work.

6. Interaction with animals

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Scientists in the study were clearly concerned about how RAS could harm urban animals.

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There’s high potential for RAS to interfere with animals, from flying drones endangering birds to robots in trees disrupting animals’ habitats.

7. Managing pollution

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Automated monitoring could detect pollutants quickly, and even catch violations of environmental laws.

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Autonomous vehicles and repair robots could substantially reduce emissions and noise pollution.

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Smart buildings and automated street lighting systems could also reduce light pollution and wasted energy.

8. Managing water infrastructure

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Systems to monitor and maintain drinking water and sewage could improve water quality in cities and lead to less water pollution.

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Managing water flow could also lead to less flooding in and around cities.

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Overall, researchers say that RAS could boost human well-being in cities by making them greener and more accessible.

"Understanding how robotics and autonomous systems will affect our interaction with nature is vital for ensuring that our future cities support wildlife that is accessible to all."

First author Dr. Mark Goddard, Northumbria University

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