Autonomous robots: changing your city right under your nose

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Photo by Andy Kelly

An urban world populated by robots has been imagined for years: the 1927 silent film, Metropolis, the inspiration behind Bladerunner, was one of the first to tackle this theme in the post-war era of Fordist mass production. Nowadays, this dreamworld has become a reality: robots feature heavily not only in science fiction, but also in our everyday urban lives. In many ways, we have become so used to automation that we don’t even notice it. Most people don’t consider, for instance, that their new Amazon kindle was handled by a warehouse robot before being sent to them, or that the ATM they use at the end of their street is a robot. Automation has become incidental.

In our last article, we examined what exactly autonomous robots are; this week we will explore how these robots are transforming our urban spaces, and in turn our societies. Autonomous robots are not a thing of the future — they are here already, changing our cities in unprecedented ways:

Transport and mobility

Autonomous systems are already being used, in different ways and at different levels of technological advancement, in cities across the globe. Whether automated driverless trains, for example the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) set up in 1987 in London, or whole mobility management systems that instigate actions based on insights produced through artificial intelligence, automation is already essential to urban citizens’ daily journeys across their cities.

Then there are the futuristic autonomous transport robots becoming more of a reality every day: autonomous cars, such as Waymo’s, are one of these, along with autonomous flying drones, proposed as potential ‘air-taxis’. Autonomous robots will not only increasingly facilitate transport management and logistics as we move into the future then, but will constitute alternative modes of transport themselves.

Jobs and employment

There is a clear split in the ‘robots and jobs’ debate; on the one hand, some say that automation will cause the unravelling of the world economy, of capitalism, and eventually of the social order. On the other, many claim that automation will free us of the drudgery of repetitive physical and mental tasks and trigger a stimulation of the arts, creating a utopian world populated by people who can truly choose what they want to do in life.

As the majority of people, and therefore industries, are now based in urban centres, there is no doubt that whatever happens, robots are going to have a major impact on our cities and urban ways of living. Automation may mean, for example, that we all have more free time and/or receive universal basic income, resulting in more people investing in their artistic or emotional sides, or using public spaces more regularly. Whatever the consequences, this is something that policymakers need to start addressing now, if they want to make sure that society is prepared for a potentially radically different job landscape in the coming decades.

Delivery and Logistics

Autonomous robots are already being used for delivery and logistics in cities. In terms of delivery, autonomous ground robots, like ours, promise to remove all current problems with last-mile delivery, such as unsuccessful delivery attempts and damaged packages, a common problem for those with busy urban lifestyles who are not always at home. This will not only be limited to last-mile delivery though: autonomous trucks, such as those designed by Otto (which has just been acquired by Uber), and even autonomous ships, are already able to complete long-distance deliveries (although they may not yet be allowed to do so legally), with potentially significant consequences for urban economies and how people access goods.

When it comes to logistics, autonomous robots are often already an integral feature of commercial operations. Amazon’s 45,000 warehouse ‘Kiva’ robots and DHL’s Toru robot are now part of these companies’ everyday operations. Some companies are going one step further: Ocado, once an online supermarket, has become its very own tech provider through building a robotics systems that has left its warehouses completely human-free, and created 10,000 jobs in the process. Big city ports, such as that of Rotterdam, employ small, mobile, box-shaped cranes (known as automated straddles) that whizz around removing containers from trucks and driving them to storage bays without a human lifting a single finger.:

Urban planning and construction

Urban planning will need to change to accommodate autonomous robots occupying public spaces. This will not only mean new planning regulations, but also new design. New ‘robot lanes’ may need to be added to pavements or roads, and things like unloading/loading devices for delivery robots may become a common feature of urban/suburban homes. Emerging ‘smart’ cities may plan autonomous vehicles (both cars and smaller devices) into their foundations, leapfrogging the older, existing metropoles who will have some catching up to do. Urban homes may also need to change for personal home robots, who may not, for example, be able to climb stairs.

On the other hand, autonomous robots will in future help to design and construct the roads and buildings that their very kind will occupy (their fellow street-cleaning, delivery, education etc. robots). Robots may work alongside humans on construction sites, with an added touch of precision that humans often lack — such as for creating curved walls, or making bricklaying numerically perfect. Robots will potentially help design buildings too, working alongside designers and architects. Flying drones, for example, can take pictures and produce 3-D models of proposed and ongoing sites; ground-based robots can analyse and inspect unfinished constructions, through monitoring leaks, temperature anomalies, and any other problems, and compose a report of the constructions’ progress. Thus urban planners and architects will have to plan and build for autonomous robots, but they may ironically get help with this from the robots themselves.

Urban security

Policing is perhaps the most contentious area when it comes to autonomous robots. New police and surveillance robots are popping up across the world, for example in Dubai, where the first robot joined the police force last May. Similarly, in China police robots have begun to be deployed, such as the ‘AnBot’, which can carry out security checks at airports and is armed with a taser. While human-like police robots like this are unlikely to appear anytime soon in most countries, the fact that they are already in use suggests a future where autonomous robots at least help the police in some capacity, even if this only means surveillance drones or facial recognition robots. The extent to which robots can carry out policing duties will be determined by individual national and local governments — this decision will also require significant citizen participation.

City operations

City operations, particularly those that involve getting to difficult-to-reach places, such as those underground or underwater, can be facilitated massively by autonomous robots. Crawling and floating robots, sometimes known as ‘robot rats’, can explore and inspect subterranean networks in cities. RedZone Robotics, for example, have created a compact autonomous robot, Solo, that uses a 360-degree camera and lasers to inspect city sewers. These little machines can take pictures, measure water quality and pressure, and detect the presence of various gases, all helping with inspection. Robotic rats are not the only thing helping city operators; autonomous flying drones are already in use checking out streams and landfills, and can also help with managing traffic flow and congestion. Autonomous robots can therefore help to give machines the jobs that humans really, really don’t want to do, such as inspecting sewers.

Conclusion

Autonomous robots are changing our cities as we speak, and this will only increase as time goes by. This is theoretically a good thing: as long as we regulate well and remain people-focused, autonomous robots should facilitate the creation of more liveable, smarter cities where urban living works for all.

If you want to be a part of creating these cities, invest in our equity crowdfunding campaign now and help us to make autonomous delivery robots a reality!


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