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BGS joins international research into robotic revolution

International research illustrates the opportunities and challenges that robots and autonomous systems, could bring for urban biodiversity and ecosystems in the future.

08/01/2021 By BGS Press
Robots and autonomous systems, such as drones, have a large range of potential applications. Source: Unsplash / @jeisblack
Robots and autonomous systems, such as drones, have a large range of potential applications. Source: Unsplash / @jeisblack

International research published this week, illustrates the opportunities and challenges that robots and autonomous systems, known as RAS, could bring for urban biodiversity and ecosystems in the future.

BGS Principal Modeller, Dr Andrew Barkwith, was part of a global team who contributed to the paper, ‘A global horizon scan of the future impacts of robotics and autonomous systems on urban ecosystems’, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Led by the University of Leeds, the research explores emerging trends and likely future developments that could transform our natural environment and brings together views from 170 researchers and stakeholders from 35 countries around the world and from a variety of disciplines.

Robots and autonomous systems are technologies that can sense, analyse, interact with and manipulate their physical environment. They include automated vehicles, automated irrigation, smart buildings which mitigate heat stress, drones able to apply pesticides and wireless sensor networks used for monitoring.

The researchers highlight that technological innovations have altered the way in which economies operate and how people interact with built, social and natural environments.

RAS have already revolutionized how environmental data are collected and how species populations are monitored for conservation.

Researchers believe that too narrow a focus on technological advances may overlook other social, ecological and technological ramifications. 

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Andrew explains:

“It’s anticipated that around 7 billion people will live in urban areas by 2050. As mobile and sensor technologies advance, RAS are becoming more integrated within society with huge potential to enhance urban sustainability.

“They have a large range of potential applications, such as autonomous transport, waste collection, infrastructure maintenance and repair, policing and precision agriculture.

“However, we don’t have a particularly good understanding of how widespread uptake and use of RAS could impact biodiversity or ecosystems and it’s important to evaluate this.

“This has been a very valuable project to be involved in as it highlights the different perspectives of researchers and stakeholders around the world and broadens our understanding of a rapidly emerging topic.”

It’s hoped this kind of horizon scanning will encourage innovation and facilitate proactive responses by researchers, managers, policymakers and other stakeholders.

The research illustrates the importance of understanding and responding to both positive and negative impacts of new technologies, to ensure an overall positive outcome, to avoid potentially detrimental and unintended consequences and to fully realise the benefits.

The findings strongly suggest that development and implementation of RAS should be aligned with environmental concerns.

For example, the automated management of hydrological systems could result in the homogenisation of water currents and timings of flow, disrupting the life cycle of flow-sensitive species.  

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Says Andrew:

“It’s clear the RAS offer unique opportunities that could benefit natural ecosystems, as well as how we interact with our urban environments and green spaces, around the world.

“However, it is vitally important we gain a global perspective about these kinds of opportunities, challenges and impacts RAS present for the environment, early in the process, and that we continue with these kind of research opportunities to contribute insights from a geological perspective.”

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Dr Martin Dallimer, from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, added:

“Technology, such as robotics, has the potential to change almost every aspect of our lives. As a society, it is vital that we try to understand any possible side effects and risks of our growing use of robots and automated systems.

“Although the future impacts on urban green spaces and nature are hard to predict, we need to make sure that the public, policy makers and robotics developers are aware of the potential pros and cons.”

The research was conducted as part of University of Leeds’ ‘Self Repairing Cities’ project, which aims to enable robots and autonomous systems to maintain urban infrastructure without causing disruption to citizens and was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Andrew Barkwith is the lead for the BGS Smart Observing Systems (SOS) project, based at the British Geological Survey’s headquarters in Nottingham.

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