A robotic revolution for urban nature

Man holding drone in a field

Drones, robots and autonomous systems can transform the natural world in and around cities for people and wildlife.

  • 07 January 2021
  • 3 min read

Drones, robots and autonomous systems can transform the natural world in and around cities for people and wildlife.

International research, involving over 170 experts including Dr Heather Rumble from the University of Portsmouth, assessed the opportunities and challenges that this cutting-edge technology could have for urban nature and green spaces.

The researchers highlighted opportunities to improve how we monitor nature, such as identifying emerging pests and ensuring plants are cared for, and helping people engage with and appreciate the natural world around them.

As robotics, autonomous vehicles and drones become more widely used across cities, pollution and traffic congestion may reduce, making towns and cities more pleasant places to spend time outside.

Robotics and autonomous vehicles have the potential to provide many benefits to urban ecosystems. My own research highlights that many urban ecosystems suffer from a lack of ongoing maintenance, which could be aided by this technology through lower maintenance costs.

Dr Heather Rumble, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Geography

But the researchers also warned that advances in robotics and automation could be damaging to the environment.

For instance, robots and drones might generate new sources of waste and pollution themselves, with potentially substantial negative implications for urban nature. Cities might have to be re-planned to provide enough room for robots and drones to operate, potentially leading to a loss of green space. They could also increase existing social inequalities, such as unequal access to green space.

Dr Heather Rumble, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Geography, said: “Robotics and autonomous vehicles have the potential to provide many benefits to urban ecosystems. My own research highlights that many urban ecosystems suffer from a lack of ongoing maintenance, which could be aided by this technology through lower maintenance costs. 

“However, with great power comes great responsibility; we also identified some serious risks, such as the widespread loss of habitat in cities due to the required new infrastructure or an over reliance on robots and autonomous vehicles and subsequent loss of urban ecological elements that require human maintenance/expertise. There is a significant risk that the speed of implementation is too fast for us to accurately monitor the impacts it is having on urban ecology. It's crucial that environmental scientists are engaged with this topic now to try to minimise unintended consequences.”

Lead author Dr Martin Dallimer, from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, said: “Technology, such as robotics, has the potential to change almost every aspect of our lives. As a society, it is vital that we proactively 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, so we can avoid detrimental consequences and fully realise the benefits.”

There is a significant risk that the speed of implementation is too fast for us to accurately monitor the impacts it is having on urban ecology. It's crucial that environmental scientists are engaged with this topic now to try to minimise unintended consequences.

Dr Heather Rumble, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Geography

The research, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, is authored by a team of 77 academics and practitioners.

The researchers conducted an online survey of 170 experts from 35 countries, which they say provides a current best guess of what the future could hold.

Participants gave their views on the potential opportunities and challenges for urban biodiversity and ecosystems, from the growing use of robotics and autonomous systems. These are defined as technologies that can sense, analyse, interact with and manipulate their physical environment. This includes unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), self-driving cars, robots able to repair infrastructure, and wireless sensor networks used for monitoring.

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

The research was conducted as part of the University of Leeds’ Self Repairing Cities project, which aims to enable robots and autonomous systems to maintain urban infrastructure without causing disruption to citizens.

This work was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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