Will the emergence of self-driving cars, drones, repair robots, and wireless monitoring networks pull us closer to nature, or will the autonomous technologies keep us indoors?
A survey of over 170 experts, led by the University of Leeds, shared their ideas and predictions – both positive and negative – on the potential opportunities and challenges for urban biodiversity and ecosystems.
Through the online questionnaire, technology professionals highlighted ways that autonomous systems could support nature, including the identification of emerging pests or monitoring of plant-care.
The survey, however, also revealed a downside to cutting-edge robotic technologies, like increased pollution.
Robots and drones, for example, generate new sources of waste and may impact urban areas especially. Cities will have to accommodate a growing use of robots, self-driving cars, and drones, potentially leading to a loss of green space.
All 170 of the survey respondents, from 35 countries, worked in one of five areas: environmental science, engineering, smart cities, robotics and automated systems or urban planning.
The research, published this month in Nature Ecology & Evolution , is authored by a team of 77 academics and practitioners.
The survey, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC, is part of Leeds' Self Repairing Cities project , which aims to enable robots and autonomous systems to maintain urban infrastructure without causing disruption to citizens.
Autonomous technologies, defined in the survey as "technologies that can sense, analyze and interact with their physical environment," have a large range of potential applications, such as autonomous transport, waste collection, infrastructure maintenance and repair, policing and precision agriculture. In an open field with such exciting possibilities, the robotics and automation industry must also make sure not to ignore the impacts of the cutting-edge drones, vehicles, and monitoring tools, according to the study's organizer.
"Technology, such as robotics, has the potential to change almost every aspect of our lives," said lead author Dr. Martin Dallimer, from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds . "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, so we can avoid detrimental consequences and fully realize the benefits."
In a short Q&A with Tech Briefs below, Dr. Dallimer reveals which technologies will have the biggest impacts on the environment — and it won't be just one, he says.
Tech Briefs: When you take all of these technologies together — UAVs, self-driving cars, robots, wireless sensor networks — which one do you think will have the biggest impact on our environment?
Dr. Martin Dallimer: This is a very difficult question to answer. In the paper, we identified nine areas that we felt robotics and automated systems are likely to impact in the near future. For instance, technologies such as self-driving cars, and their associated infrastructure, will be very noticeable to people, and could radically alter how we use land in and around cities. Drones (both flying and on the ground) and sensor networks will change how we monitor and manage urban greenspaces, nature and wildlife. This is likely to change our understanding, as scientists, of urban nature, and also change how people in general interact with the nature around them.
A further big unknown issue is how drones, self-driving cars and so on will influence wildlife and habitats directly, such as interfering with animal behaviors or resulting in new forms of waste and pollution. The biggest overall impacts on our environment are actually likely to come from the unknown interactions between all of the technologies combined, rather than one individual type.
Tech Briefs: What were the most surprising pieces of feedback you received in the survey? Were there predicted environmental impacts that surprised you, or might surprise our readers?
Dr. Dallimer: I think everyone knows about self-driving cars and drones, so the fact that these technologies will alter how we use land and greenspaces is probably not surprising. Equally, people are familiar with how drones are now used to monitor wildlife and biodiversity.
The more surprising, and hard to predict, aspects are likely to be how the new technologies alter our own relationships with nature and the outdoor world. Will we find ourselves barely going outside at all as everything gets delivered to our door, or will the ability to access fun, real-time information on what animals and plants live near us, and what they are doing (breeding, migrating, flowering) lead to a new explosion in interest in nature?
Tech Briefs: Why is it so important to have a survey like this?
Dr. Dallimer: Presently, we have little appreciation of the pathways through which the widespread uptake and deployment of robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) could affect urban biodiversity and ecosystems. To date, information on how RAS may impact urban biodiversity and ecosystems remains scattered across multiple sources and disciplines, if it has been recorded at all. Our paper represents an attempt to pull together the information and expertise that exists on this new and fast moving topic.
Tech Briefs: Where was there the most consensus regarding impact?
Dr. Dallimer: With the importance of new technologies for improving how we monitor urban ecosystems and biodiversity.
This is an area that is already quite well developed, so we saw lots more opportunities for this to continue to develop.
How do you think robotics and autonomous systems will impact the environment? Share your questions and comments below.