Technology4Planet
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Technology4Planet

Protecting the environment with automation and robotics engineering

Over the years people are likely to see significant advantages of renewable energy sources. The media including Forbes or The Economist published story after story about the importance of renewable electricity, the environment and the role of new technologies which have pushed the industry sectors toward clean technological processes. People who become familiar with this information are left with the impression that the more money is invested in factories, the less pollution is being emitted by a plant. Actually, it’s the opposite. A similar thing can be noticed when we talk about the way how an automated factory works. Not many people are even close to the truth about technology and dependencies which exist in those plants.

This short brief is going to explain to you the role of automation and robotics in improving the factory processes for environmental protection, the technologies used in the industrial processes as well as clarify the dependencies on the global technological market which currently is becoming the main topic for discussion about crossing the digital divide to protect the environment.

A growing suite of digital tools is emerging to better manage the changes done by humans around the world. Technology, as well as automation and robotics, is changing the way humans assess the environmental impact of different projects such as construction or industrial for instance. The need to protect and to seek more sustainable formulas and solutions for interacting with the environment became clear during the COP24 (United Nations Climate Change Conference) taking place in Katowice, Poland in 2018. The conference confirmed the importance of fighting against global climate changes and global warming. As a result, technology and its so-called components will play a key role in that process. For the tech industry to have such an impact, it’s important that multiple stands of IT solutions come together in harmony and deliver additional value.

The technology applied in industries to save the environment is one great example that humans are thinking long-term, however, of course, there are a number of things that the world needs to improve but the crux of the matter is multi-faceted. Currently, the world population is more than 7.3 billion people with approximately 74 million people growth per year. That’s more than seven billion bodies that need to be fed, clothed, kept warm and educated (meet all basic human requirements needed to survive). Individuals are consuming resources and also are producing vast quantities of waste — and those numbers continue to grow. The impact of so many humans on the environment takes two major forms such as huge consumption of resources (land, food, water, air, fuels, and minerals) and waste products as (air and water pollutions, greenhouse gases).

Apart from this, there are many additional factors at play. In fact, such a big population generates urbanization processes whose level and growth differ considerably by region. The growth in urbanization can lead to a large number of changes in an area. The so-called urban populations interact with their environments. The natural features of the landscape are removed (e.g. trees) and new constructions are placed. Urban consumption of energy helps create heat islands that can change the local climate and weather patterns. The heat island phenomenon is created because cities radiate heat back into the atmosphere at a rate much lower than rural areas. Urbanization also affects the broader regional environments. Regions downwind from large industrial areas also see increases in air pollution and the number of days with thunderstorms.

All of the mentioned consequences of human growth are under consideration to minimize humans’ negative effects of existence. Since 1950 many cities in developed countries have met urban environmental challenges. In many cases or even in most of them, the technology and the industry cause the environmental changes — for instance, the growth of human populations generates a demand for goods such as cars and in fact, cars emit unfriendly gases for the environment. The world’s technological progress positively affects people’s lives and negatively the environment in some cases. The top line is the potential for how high tech will help in reducing carbon emissions and global warming.

Automation in different sectors

The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last more than half a million years, there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat. According to NASA and Vostok Ice Core, Petit et al (Nature, vol. 399) the current warming trend is of particular significance because of the fact most of it is likely to be the result of human activity since the first industrial revolution. Consequently, researchers have even been looking for ways of modifying the Earth’s environment to control global climate. Using advanced technology when building or upgrading infrastructure can help reduce climate-related risks. The climate-resilient technology is already being incorporated, not only into the construction industry but also into business processes of many different industry sectors. According to The Guardian, if every new building for the next 30 years was made with a material which absorbs carbon dioxide, humans could eliminate the globe warming pollution but the key is automation and robotics. It can have a huge footprint to enhance the resilience of business to the climate variability of a warming planet. Rapid advances in robotics are proving to be a key driver of the current explosion in technological innovations created by both corporations and early-stage startups. Robotics is already a multibillion-dollar industry with its core in manufacturing automation. The market for robots that can perform basic chores such as cleaning, mowing, and vacuuming is already significant. Yet robotic driving will transform means of transport or factories reducing energy consumption and pollution emissions. The link between energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, and climate change is clear however the path of how automation can help is not obvious. It is in relation to combining climate change in particular where robots can provide some benefits. Preventing pollution and emissions through monitoring the release of harmful greenhouse gasses or optimizing the manufacturing processes are the forces which can definitely change ways how the current world works. With regard to the latter, robots are rising to tackle the dullest, most dangerous and possibly the dirtiest jobs like sorting garbage for instance. In recent years, the waste industry has begun deploying new software and mechatronic innovations to bring down the operating costs and reduce the negative impacts of waste on the environment. According to Science, there are numerous benefits of using robots in waste treatment and recycling. Processes which have been automated can reduce the amount of CO2 emissions as a result of final waste incineration reducing its quantity or increase the number of materials which can be captured during the sorting processes and as a result bring them back on the market.

Incinerator (waste-to-energy plant; waste incineration plant), Industry park Höchst, Hesse, Germany. Presumably the largest incinerator in Germany with a capacity of about 675000 tons per year. Tone-mapped HDR image.

Summarizing the ideas from the previous paragraph, the importance of automation in waste management has been highlighted. The challenges of increasing the quality of life can be achieved through a rigorous management system. New technologies come to support efforts made in that direction, a truly innovative role is using advanced self-driven robotics. The household waste collection process is done today using collection trucks monitored by GPS and intelligent containers that can provide information relating to filling and weight. This data is provided in real time to a system that can save it for collection predictions or generating optimal collection routes. The mentioned system can also be used widely in other industry sectors reducing not only the cost and local budget assessments but also dropping pollution emissions emitted by vehicles.

Another clear illustration of robots helping the planet is the renewable energy sector and its solar power plants. ABB is the only corporation which offers the industry’s most comprehensive portfolio of products, systems, solutions, and services to optimize the performance and return on investment of any solar installation. The company also delivers a lot of automation solutions available for many different sectors. The power output delivered from a photovoltaic module highly depends on the amount of technical irradiance but let’s call it “solar energy” which reaches the solar cells. Many factors determine the ideal output or optimum yield in a photovoltaic module. However, the environment is one of the parameters which directly affect solar performance. Thus, to ensure optimal efficiency and maximize energy yield, dust on solar panels has to be removed. According to statistics, dust density is high in Africa, South Asia, and Poland in Europe (as a result of highly polluted industry density). Since the solar power farms are often located in the aforementioned dusty regions, one of the earliest use cases for unmanned systems is self-cleaning robots. The robots are automatically cleaning the solar panels whenever the level of dust lamina is over the minimum level. The waterless cleaning robots have been used in many places around the world since the year 2014 when the first robot was invented.

Using robots to protect the environment

Another way where automation makes sense is the aerospace industry. Addressing the issues of the climate changes and environmental protections, pilotless vehicles, more commonly known as drones, can be used not only in the military but also used as inspection robots. Drones are used for hundreds of commercial applications as fully autonomous machines. Environmental monitoring robots meanwhile have been under development since 1990 as the earliest recorded aerial vehicles date back to 1849 (!). Now drone technology has spread well beyond the different industries. Maritime and terrestrial drones used individually or deployed to work together can gather and store information and data to assess and monitor the quality of the environment, particularly in areas that are too dangerous to access for humans. Modern aerial vehicles whether rotor-based designs or fixed-wing versions, often flexible and able to monitor capabilities are used in a project called Global Forest Watch. The platform uses satellite and drone sourced data to track deforestation around the world in near real time. The geoportal collects geographic, land, infrastructure use and other data to increase transparency around environmental and policy issues around the planet. The online platform also provides information about where and how forests have been changing since 2000. Junior companies including startups are also experimenting with using drones to protect the Amazon rainforest, by employing technologies to collect data from hard-to-reach places. As it was mentioned before, drones gather an enormous amount of data however actually AI (artificial intelligence) is being used to compare two different images of the forest where the overlay can show discrepancies and alert that there is a difference between images. The automated tools help researchers focus their attention on even small space in what is a large area.

But more generally, IT and robotics companies are also starting to use advanced AI and software programs to better understand the ways how land is used by analyzing land cover maps. These solutions help to explore how efficient the areas are that need special environmental protection. The application Earth Cube, for instance, shows the impact of development on the Earth whether that is on the air or ozone layer. But also IoT (Internet of Things) is one way to help reduce the environmental impact of human activity. Sensor-enabled electronic devices are already helping monitor the impact of cities, collect details about sewers or air quality which is commonly used by citizens to check the air quality conditions before leaving home.

For certain endangered species, IoT systems are the real rescue. Using sensor-based devices and autonomous drones there are systems which build predictive anti-poaching solutions. Data analytics is making it possible to predict poachers’ habits and deploy deterrent measures before the poachers are able to kill endangered animals. Predictive analytics works by tracking the behaviors of other prey animals in habitats. Scientists can monitor how those animals move and use sudden shifts in behavior to identify the presence of poachers. Those researchers then can proactively work to stop poachers.

In many cases, environmental protection policy is not only global warming but also the ability to protect animals, rivers, forests and other features of the environment around mankind. Automation and robotics are being used in a lot of different matters and deployments which can somehow minimize the negative efforts of human activity. Integrating the capabilities of automation opens up greater opportunities for environmental protection as well as research.

Summary

There are a lot of companies which are leaders in environmental protection (General Electric, ABB, Siemens or Vestas). The global market is growing fast and according to the independent consulting companies’ forecasts, it will still grow as there is a strong expectation from developing countries to achieve a high development level. What is more, both industrial growth and human awareness of environmental protection are factors which create an even stronger demand for clean technologies. Using renewable energy sources is one of the most competitively popular ways to protect the environment in many markets.

Europe is one of the biggest wind energy markets. Wind energy is being supported widely by Germany, France, Belgium or Ireland. In Asia, the economic tiger — China continues to lead. China added 19.3GW of wind power generation capacity in 2017 (total global market growth 50GW) to reach a total capacity of 149GW (total global market size — 540GW). Also, the offshore market has now taken off and will become an increasingly important part of the future Chinese market. Despite the political turmoil, most of the countries in the world are stepping into new innovative clean technologies which don’t hurt the environment at all. In the Pacific region, Australia is the leader of delivering effective climate policy, according to a new campaign launched by the Commonwealth Environmental Commission.

Ongoing power research and development will help all industries harness more resources, more efficiency and lower unit production costs in the future. The biggest factor in boosting industrial productivity and keeping unrenewable resources at a low level is having a long-term environmental management policy. Another important factor is making manufacturing easier and cheaper as well as creating intelligent systems that collect and interpret real-time data which can help to optimize and minimize waste production — ABB is a pioneering company in this field delivering world-class analytics programs and electronic and electric components for many different industry sectors. Based on the production parameters, the IT platforms are able to prepare proper and accurate production forecasts used as input for various planning simulation tools.

A new mobilizing force for climate action is rapidly expanding and any business seen as benefiting from being part of the cleanup crew will see above market average growth. The new generation of fully automated factories is the beginning of an era where a human can produce goods almost without generating pollution and waste. The concept of sustainability has dominated environmental thinking since the first publication dated 1972. The term rests upon the idea that humans are obligated to future generations and ought to live in a way that preserves natural resources (which every day are being depleted) and the environment so that our children and their children can enjoy them. Data mining is a promising approach to model those dependencies. Digital technology also provides ways to improve the material management system of the world’s natural resources. It will continue to be an essential component to transition societies into a greener, cleaner and pollution-free environment for all of us. In order to improve production, business and researchers have been working on new ways to create innovative materials which have got both effective electronic value and less natural resources usage. A suite of studies and investments still need to be performed before new nanomaterials and advanced artificial intelligence solutions will be ready to power the entire Earth.

Written by Lukasz Kudlak

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