When people talk about the emerging robot revolution, the focus is often to which extent robots will take over human jobs. That is, however, only one aspect of the changes robots will bring about. Another aspect that may, in the long term, turn out to be even more important is that robots may develop into a benefit for the environment – if used in the right way.
In the summer of 2016, a Dr. Rupert Read wrote to the British newspaper The Guardian, warning that robots wouldn’t just take away our jobs; they would also ruin our environment. Robots are “fantastically energy-hungry” and, furthermore, require the use of a number of materials that are difficult to recycle, Dr. Read objected. There is no doubt that robots consume energy and require materials, but that is only one side of the equation, and it may turn out that robots will be a benefit to our environment rather than destroying it.
Take, for example, the energy consumption. It may well be that robots use energy, but are they more energy-consuming than the alternatives? Robots are not just an addition to traditional technological solutions; very often, they replace them. For instance, robot cars are not expected to require more energy than current cars – quite the opposite. Robot cars can be programmed for optimal driving without unnecessary braking or acceleration, and on the motorway, robot cars can drive closely and reduce the total air resistance. An analysis from MIT shows that robot trucks under convoy can save up to 20 percent fuel compared to driving separately. Moreover, robot trucks do not need a compartment for the driver and can save the energy otherwise used for ventilation, warming and the playing of country music. One negative effect of robot cars, however, may be that we will see more empty cars in the streets on their way to pick up their users.
The first robots that made their way to the ordinary household were vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers. Robot vacuum cleaners are typically smaller than human-operated vacuum cleaners and so, require less plastic and other environmentally harmful materials – as long as you take care to dispose properly of the worn-out batteries. Also, robot vacuum cleaners can operate at night when there is less pressure on the electricity grid. As for lawnmowers, many robot lawnmowers are solar-powered, and make no demand on the power grid at all.
Robots in the field
Robots can also make farming more environment-friendly in the future. It is expected that the world market for agricultural robots will reach 35 billion USD within the next four years.
Today, many fields are sprayed widely with herbicides, a method that can lead to groundwater contamination. An alternative is represented by the solar-powered robot AG BOT II that detects weeds with the use of cameras and applies herbicide with precision. Other robots kill weeds with laser beams, and we will also see robots that pull up weeds by the roots and cut it into compost.
Robots can also be used to plough fields and for sowing, planting, and harvesting crops with greater precision. Sensors can determine when fruits or corncobs are ripe and pick them at the best time. The robot LettuceBot, for instance, rolls along rows of lettuce to determine which ones to thin out, and which ones to keep. Moreover, robots can detect insect infestations much earlier than usual, and may intervene with precision use of insecticide before the infestation spreads. Flying drones can survey fields and analyse the well-being of the crops.
There is also room for robots in livestock farming; for instance, we have had milking robots for a long time. In Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and other places, flying drones are used as a kind of sheep-dog to round up cattle and herd them from place to place – a cheaper and less polluting alternative to the helicopters that are commonly used in Australia for this purpose.
Robots for transport
Approximately one sixth of the world’s energy consumption is used for the transport of people. Robots will be able to replace parts of this transport. Business travel makes up a large part of all plane flights, for instance, very often with just a few days between outbound and return flight. Even today there is an alternative to this, namely telepresence robots that enable the user to sit in his home or office and operate a robot with a built-in Skype screen by remote control. If you are going to a conference abroad, you can hire such a robot at the destination and have it brought to the conference centre. Then you can participate on an equal footing (or 'wheeling') with the human conference participants and do everything except tasting the local delicacies. The telepresence robots of today have no arms, so you will need help to ride on the elevator, but that deficiency will surely be remedied in a few years. Combined with virtual reality, the experience of being present by robot will become more and more like being there in person and it will save a lot of unnecessary air transport that is costly in time and money, besides being harmful to the environment. Similarly, flying robot drones can watch over large areas – such as a large industrial site, or a forest – so you won’t have to drive around by car. The police patrol car of the future may be a flying drone.
Small rolling robots and flying drones may be used for the transport of smaller items without having to transport a driver, too. Amazon is experimenting with delivering goods directly to the consumer with flying drones, and the Starship Technologies company, set up by the two founders of Skype, Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, has developed small robots than can drive on the sidewalk, or in quiet streets. The Starship robots are already being used in London where they deliver food for Just Eat and Pronto, and in Switzerland where they are being tested by the postal services. Since the ratio of the weight of the transported item to the weight of the vehicle is reduced, the energy consumption will be equally reduced for each transported item.
A large part of the costs of the transport of goods, particularly with trucks and vans, consists of wages, and so, it makes economic sense to reduce the time of transportation. But when the personnel are replaced by robots, it will often be economically viable to transport the goods more slowly to save fuel, and this will benefit the environment. Maybe, in the future we will see a return of mighty sailing ships controlled by robots, crossing the oceans at a leisurely and environmentally benign pace, possibly supplemented by solarpower in low wind. Smaller versions of such vessels are already used today in the Bering Sea for counting the populations of fish and seals. The inventor of these boats, Richard Jenkins, believes that thousands of such robot vessels can collect data about the state of the ocean and provide a more accurate picture of global warming.
We will, in general, see robots used more directly in the service of the environment. In Italy, they have tried using a Dustbot that plies around the streets of the city, collecting trash and taking it to a recycling station. In San Francisco, the Liquid Robotics company has developed sailing robots that look out for oil spillage from offshore drilling rigs, among other things. If an accident happens, the Protei Project offers sail-powered, remote-controlled drones that can each collect up to 2 tonnes of oil from the ocean after a spill.
Maybe the woods of the future will be planted by robots. Today, trees are planted by manual power, and it is not very efficient. For this reason, two students from the University of Victoria have developed a robot called the TreeRover that can plant trees on its own. In the future, more developed versions of the prototype may replant woodland after forest fires or felling. The remote-controlled robot Sawfish from Triton Logging serves the opposite purpose. In the United States, a large number of artificial lakes have been created by the building of dams. This means that approximately 300 million trees are submerged, corresponding to timber of an estimated total market value of 50 million USD. Sawfish can saw up and remove such submerged trees as an alternative to cutting down healthy trees for timber. Robots are also being used now for fighting forest fires without putting human lives at risk.
Whether robots are good or bad for the environment ultimately depends on what we are using them for. This goes for all technology. Technology in itself is neutral; it is our choice if it shall be used for good or bad purposes. When the stone axe was invented, it was used for killing people, and for cutting down trees and making houses and boats. In the same way, robots may, as Rupert Read warned us, come to harm the environment if they are used thoughtlessly. But if they are used with just a little common sense, robots may turn out to be the best thing that has happened to the environment.