City of Robots: How robotics & automation could solve cities’ most serious...

City of Robots: How robotics & automation could solve cities’ most serious problems

The future of the world will be urban, with the majority of people living in cities. In Asia and Africa, a burgeoning youth population will mainly live in new or fast-expanding cities, while in the West, an ageing population will face distinct challenges of its own in crowded urban environments, which are themselves ageing.

Throughout the world, urban growth will create opportunities to enhance the quality of life for all, but will also bring major challenges in terms of congestion, air pollution, and increased demands for energy, water, and open or safe, controlled spaces – problems enhanced by climate change and growing economic disparity.

The strategic application of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) could help support smarter urban growth in areas such as transportation, logistics, policing, healthcare, maintenance, construction, and more.

However, the development of urban robotics requires real-world experimentation ‘beyond the laboratory’ to develop viable commercial applications and address concerns about public safety, says UK-RAS, the umbrella organisation for robotics research in the UK, and part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

This is particularly true in the case of drones and autonomous aerial vehicles, the use of which has been restrained in the UK, the US, and Europe, by restrictive regulation – especially when compared with China, Dubai, and Singapore, for example.

Urban robotics

UK-RAS has published a new white paper on these complex challenges, Urban Robotics and Automation: Critical Challenges, International Experiments, and Transferable Lessons for the UK, to coincide with UK Robotics Week, which ends on 29 June.

The paper says that more large-scale, urban test-beds will help speed the development of commercial services and products, building public and political support for the widespread application of robotics and autonomous systems.

Last week, a survey published in advance of UK Robotics Week found that overall support for robotics in the UK is low, as popular media coverage focuses on Terminator scenarios, malignant AIs, and mass unemployment.

Governments that are focused on establishing ‘first mover’ advantage in robotics, AI, and autonomous systems will be better placed to capture the economic, employment and competitive advantages when those applications are scaled up to city level, says UK-RAS.

But before we get to that point, there are a number of challenges facing cities, both today and in the future, explains the white paper. In each of these areas, the smart application of robotics and autonomous systems could help, but larger-scale testing needs to take place, supported by light-touch regulation.

The challenge of existing cities

In central and eastern Europe, cities have been declining due to their remoteness from markets and their poor-quality infrastructure, whereas cities in northern and southern Europe have been growing fast, says UK-RAS. Meanwhile, metropolitan expansion in the US has long been concentrated in the suburbs, which have grown at three times the rates of inner cities.

The critical challenges in all of these contexts are how to reconfigure the existing built environment and infrastructure to meet new societal and environmental demands. UK-RAS suggests that robotics and autonomous systems could be a core part of the solution.

The key issues include:-

  • Managing increased demand for resources, such as energy, food, and water.
  • Providing distribution, logistical, and mobility services.
  • Ageing populations in the UK, US, and Europe, and their increased demands for healthcare and social care.
  • New environmental standards and expectations.
  • The incorporation of new control and digital technologies into infrastructure networks to enhance efficiency, and enable the widespread use of renewable energy.
  • Adjusting to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The high cost of monitoring and maintaining buildings and underground infrastructures.
  • Accelerating the retrofitting of existing infrastructure/buildings to meet new performance and sustainability requirements.

All of these challenges need to be addressed without adding substantially to the costs of urban management, explains UK-RAS, which is where robotics and autonomous systems could help.

The challenge of new or expanding cities

Over the next 20 years, Africa and Asia will experience the fastest growth in urban areas, says UK-RAS. Africa is urbanising fast: the urban population there is expected to rise to 569 million (45 percent) in 2020, from 413 million (40 percent) in 2010.

Asia is also experiencing rapid urbanisation, largely due to accelerated growth in China and India, where people are moving out of rural poverty, as the middle class booms and wages rise. In Asia, UK-RAS predicts that the urban population will grow to 2.08 billion (47 percent) in 2020, from 1.67 billion (41 percent) in 2010.

There are distinct challenges facing new urban areas, alongside the challenges within existing cities. These include:-

  • Designing infrastructure and buildings to meet higher environmental and performance standards.
  • The problems of absent infrastructure and ‘making do’ informally until infrastructure catches up.
  • Social and economic disparities between those living in slums and those in high-quality housing.
  • Ensuring that there are sufficient material resources to build new infrastructure and environments.

Inclusivity will be a major challenge. As cities boom, growth is often found in informal settlements that lack adequate services, says the white paper. Urban development will need to find ways of formalising these settlement patterns and providing supporting infrastructures.

A further challenge is to be found in an extraordinary statistic, shared by UK-RAS researchers: In the future, the world’s youth will be almost entirely located in Africa and Asia. In 2050, 90 percent of people aged 15-24 will live in developing countries.

Providing education, economic opportunities, and services to those millions of young people will be a massive challenge, while the provision of adequate healthcare and social services to the ageing populations of the UK, US, and Europe will be an equally significant problem.

Environment and mobility

It stands to reason that future cities will be at the forefront of environmental management problems, too, and will demand innovative approaches to energy and water conservation, waste management, and ecological protection. Urban development will also need to be climate-proofed for extreme weather conditions.

Meanwhile, cities will need to develop new ways of overcoming congested transport systems and providing more effective mobility services.

So how can robotics and autonomous systems help?

Welcome to the machine

On-demand driverless transport and automated traffic management could help ease road congestion and minimise pollution, while unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones could exploit urban airspace for the efficient delivery of goods.

Integrated air taxis and UAV systems could help ease road congestion

Meanwhile, technologies for low-carbon energy infrastructure could be maximised through automation, including the automatic adjustment of buildings to changes in weather, and the use of smart grids that help balance energy generation, supply, and demand, and make use of new energy storage technologies.

Tele-care and robotics could aid assisted living for an ageing population. Ageing is a challenge for all cities, says UK-RAS, but also an opportunity if new services can be located in age-friendly built environments that support assisted living.

Urban ecological management is a key area. Sensors and monitoring will enable urban authorities to manage changes in weather conditions more effectively.

Urban maintenance is another. The service infrastructure supporting cities is complex, and much of it is underground. Robots could help improve urban service provision, undertaking maintenance and routine work that is difficult or unpleasant for humans, while reducing the costs of maintenance and improving the efficiency of urban infrastructure and services.

Controlled internal environments could be a boom sector, in terms of leisure spaces for large urban populations and food production in climatically controlled environments, such as vertical farms. Automation is essential for the management of all such spaces, claims the white paper.

Urban security will be another core area, says UK-RAS. Drones and robots are increasingly used by police forces, making better use of police resources and extending the scale and scope of policing activity.

Source: UK-RAS

Augmentation, not replacement

However, the white paper stresses that robotics and automation won’t simply “replace the human”. Instead, they will facilitate the “extension of ‘life support’ infrastructures that can facilitate urban growth and maximise the potential of sustainable living in cities”.

Many of the applications are about blending the human with the robotic, it says, extending and supporting human capabilities, automating mobility, services, and healthcare, enabling urban growth, and improving the use of existing infrastructures.

Put simply, urban robotics and automation provides a focus that has often been lacking in smart city projects.

But how to bring about this future? The report concludes with four key recommendations for the future development and implementation of urban robotics and autonomy.

First, national strategies for robotics and autonomous systems should have a stronger focus on cities, and extend existing commercial and university research capacity into new urban contexts. In the UK, there is scope to build much stronger links between research communities and future cities, adds the paper.

Second, national and local government needs to ensure that better conditions are created for urban robotics innovation, by setting new innovation priorities, together with supportive regulation, more incentives, and clearer political leadership.

Third, new types of on-the-ground research projects are needed, which specifically look at, model, and test urban deployments of robotics and autonomous systems at scale.

And last, a “whole city approach” will be critical in connecting these new technology applications, says the white paper.

Internet of Business says

As is often the case with UK-RAS publications, this is an excellent, evidenced summary of an important debate: the organisation consistently publishes the most focused and convincing research papers on robotics, AI, and autonomous systems.

The comparison between the ageing populations and cities of the UK, the US, and Europe, with the young people and cities of Asia and Africa is both stark and a clever way to frame the challenges facing a world that will increasingly be split in two: young/old, have/have-not, and educated/uneducated – or skilled/unskilled.

And while the media’s current obsession with the dangers of robotics and AI is understandable, and includes valuable considerations about social policy, it’s obvious that the cumulative effect of this coverage is to create a narrative of ‘man vs machine’ that minimises the chances of widespread popular acceptance.

As ever, UK-RAS is a voice of reason in a world of sensationalism.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.