Your new climate hero has six legs
It is near fundamental that any type of technology – something that helps humanity better manifest their needs and desires in the real world – can be used for good, or for evil.
Take robotics. While movies often portray the dangers of uncontrolled and sentient robots, the actual technology itself is being put to use for good purposes by many enterprises, and for more questionable purporses by others.
Robotics right now is being used to help oil companies drill more efficiently and help churn out products at an ever faster pace. While a human needs to go home and sleep at night, a robot can keep processing and producing materials 24/7, consuming power all the while. The idea of robots working their way into every part of our lives is unsettling, especially to environmentalists. But the power of robotics is also being used to lay the groundwork for a more sustainable future. It’s time to send the T-1000 into the smelter, and to boot up Wall-E instead.
Alongside the climate crisis one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues is water scarcity. The UN reports that almost four billion people – half the world’s population experience severe water scarcity at least one month per year, and that half the world’s population could be experiencing water scarcity by as early as 2025 – that’s a year and a half from now. Water networks around the world are going to need to operate at the most efficient level possible, but these networks can be difficult to inspect, map and clean.
ACWA Robotics, operating out of Corsica, has built a robot which can enter the pipes of a water network and analyzes the state of the network on a wide variety of parameters. The Clean Water Pathfinder is a flexible cylindrical unit, which can operate fully autonomously, while the network is still running, and won two innovation awards at this year’s CES in Las Vegas.
Jean-françois Guiderdoni, ACWA business development director, explains: “After CES, we were contacted by over 35 different countries. Networks around the world are generally the same with many set up in the early 1900s, which means they are now entering a threshold where there is an exponential increase in the number of pipes getting old.”
Being able to pinpoint issues and fix them using the Clean Water Pathfinder brings a number of environmental benefits straight away. The biggest one is preventing waste of clean water, through leakage, blockages or pollution. Keeping pipes efficient is a significant issue for saving power too – cleaning and pumping water.
“We are not going to change the world of water ourselves, but we are a piece of the puzzle”
“In France, we have relatively low energy consumption but it’s still . And it’s we have a fairly low energy consumption, but it still takes around 2.5 kilowatt hours to produce one cubic meter of water. If you look at some countries it can be ten times that much.”
ACWA has started trials in France already and already has potential customers lined up from the US to Japan to North Africa.
“We are not going to change the world of water ourselves, but we are a piece of the puzzle.
Not every robotics solution is going to make the splash that ACWA’s Pathfinder has, but each trial lays the groundwork for further experimentation and development.
Last year California start-up Iron Ox trialled a robot-operated hydroponic greenhouse. The venture aimed to use a robot “farmer” to monitor and tend plants 24/7 to give each plant a level of care that would be impractical for any human to pull off and with the overriding goal to grow plans with less water and less electricity.
The autonomous system monitored and tended plants from seedling to harvest. Sensors in each module checked levels of essential minerals and elements as well as parameters like acidity and then can make corrections for any deficits. Iron Bull claimed that the system could grow many times more food using far less water and electricity than other methods and substantially reduce carbon emissions.
While we can all stop flying or fully electrify our power and transport systems, food is still one are where its almost impossible to fully eliminate carbon emissions. Even discounting the highly polluting meat industries, agriculture produces substantial amounts of nitrous oxide and methane. Finding ways to grow crops while lowering emissions and producing greater yields is a holy grail of a sustainable future.
Iron Ox unfortunately couldn’t get the backing to continue its trail last year and has had to change its business model. But using robots to grow food in better low carbon ways is still a project for multiple companies. NYC-based Bowery Farming uses robotics, AI and LED lighting to grow leafy vegetables in indoor smart farms with a small footprint that can operate year round.
In the sky and in the sea
Companies like BladeBUG are creating robots designed specifically to help in the maintenance of wind turbines. The company’s six-legged BladeBUG Crawler robot can perform routine tasks way at the top of gigantic offshore turbines, beyond visual line of sight. The London start-up was in part funded by a grant from Innovate UK as part of the UK’s Technologies for Extreme and Challenging Environments Competition in 2017.
Underwater robots are being mooted as a solution to maintenance of turbines’ underwater segments. Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, home of the National Robotarium, the UK’s leading institute for robotics and AI, is currently host to a £1.4 million project to develop deep-diving robots which can perform maintenance in conditions that could put humans at risk.
The corporate partner for the research is geo-data specialist Fugro. Earlier this year Fugro completed what it claimed was the first fully remote underwater inspection of an offshore wind farm, using it’s Blue Essence uncrewed surface vessel (USV) in conjunction with its Blue Volta remotely operated vehicle (eROV). The Blue Volta eRov did safety and stability assessments on a number of turbines at the Aberdeen offshore windfarm in the North Sea.
To outflank the worst of climate disaster, huge infrastructure changes need to be spun up very quickly, across all sectors. Robotics are going to be a key part of this solution. If you run the numbers, it’s a stretch to get everything done that needs to get done using human labor alone. In addition this new infrastructure is going to need to be monitored and kept in optimum condition during what is going to be a trying few decades.
Careless and greedy use of technology helped get us into the environmental mess we’re in. But smart and far-sighted use just might help get us out of it.
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