Today is Earth Day, and one of my coworkers was telling me about all the little things we can do to help preserve the beautiful place we all live in. That got me thinking, naturally, on things that robots could do to help preserve the planet. Let’s not be disingenuous: robots, like all technologies, are not a panacea. More automation could mean less carbon emissions and less waste, but it could also mean the opposite—it all depends on how we use it. Below I’m listing five robotic technologies that could potentially help to make the planet greener. If you have more robots to add to the list, or if you disagree that robots are Earth-friendly creations, leave a comment below.
1. Recycling robots. Waste is a huge problem all over the world, and many people do their share by separating plastic, paper, glass, and other trash, which is then collected, resorted, and (hopefully) recycled. To me it looks like a hugely inefficient process screaming for more automation. The only project I’ve heard of in this area is an Italian mobile robot called Dustbot [photo below], which picks up trash at people’s homes and brings it to a recycling facility. It’s cute, but just a prototype. If we don’t want to end up in a landfill of a planet as depicted in WALL-E, we need much better recycling bots.
2. Telepresence robots. Air travel is responsible for a sizable fraction of the world’s carbon emissions. It’s also costly. That’s why many corporations have reduced business trips and embraced videoconference meetings. Now there’s another option: telepresence robots. The idea is simple: You embody a robot, controlled over the Net, that acts as your proxy at a remote location. And you can choose from many different types of body. You can be the skinny Anybots QB [video below], or the large-headed Willow Garage Texai, or you if you have US $200,000 to spare you can even get an android copy of yourself.
3. Harvesting robots. Agriculture has become highly industrialized and wasteful, with bad results for the environment and for us, who literally eat the fruits of this process. Could more automation improve this scenario? I don’t know. I want to believe that robots could replace some of today’s wasteful practices with more efficient ones that would save energy and fuel, cut down on fertilizers and pesticides, and as a result make crops more sustainable. (How harvesting robots would impact labor is another issue that only adds complexity to this problem.) Companies trying to bring robots into the field include Vision Robotics, which is developing an autonomous grape-vine pruner [video below], and Harvest Automation, which has created a small mobile robot that picks up and moves potted plants in nurseries.
3. Personal mobility vehicles. The greenest mode of transportation is—you guessed it—walking. But we can’t walk everywhere, of course. At the same time, using a car to drive for short distances is very wasteful. That’s why we need a way of going places that doesn’t involve using our legs or our gas-guzzling automobiles. Enter the personal mobility vehicle—a small machine designed to take a single person for short rides. The Segway was the first in this category, but unfortunately many cities banned it from the streets. We still think, though, that these vehicles will play an important role in reducing our dependence on cars (laws and pedestrians can’t get in the way of the future!). Our favorite prototype? Take a look at Honda’s futuristic unicycle called U3-X [video below].
5. Autonomous cars. As cool as machines like the U3-X above might be, commuting on a unicycle might not work for everyone. But if we’re going to continue using cars, can we at least make them smarter? We’re not just talking about driverless cars, vans, and even buses that researchers have recently demonstrated. Sure, these autonomous vehicles could in principle help us drive a bit more efficiently by finding the best routes and optimizing acceleration and braking of the vehicles. But we also need smarter cars that interact with each other and the road, so everyone moves along smoothly and safely. One example is the European project SARTRE [video below], which is studying whether autonomous convoys of vehicles improve safety and save fuel.