Published

18 January 2021

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

International research, including contributions from Dr Stuart Connop, senior research fellow at the University of East London's Sustainability Research Institute, assessed the opportunities for this cutting-edge technology to make an impact - positive and negative - on urban nature and green spaces.

The researchers, led by the University of Leeds, highlighted opportunities to improve how we monitor nature, such as ensuring plants are cared for and identifying emerging pests.

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.

The researchers also warned that advances in robotics and automation could have damaging side-effects.

Robots and drones might generate new sources of waste and pollution themselves. Cities might have to be re-planned to provide room for robots and drones to operate, potentially leading to a loss of green space. And they could also increase existing social inequalities, such as unequal access to green space.

Dr Connop said,

The use of robots and drones as everyday and commonplace tools has the potential to alter almost every aspect of our lives - and to shape our urban landscape. By trying to understand the potential benefits and pitfalls, we hope to inform the public and policymakers about the possible consequences of their decisions.

"There is a lot to be excited about, but we shouldn't be blinded to the possibility of detrimental side-effects and these crucial decisions should be informed by the evidence."

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.

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

The paper is titled 'A global horizon scan of the future impacts of robotics and autonomous systems on urban ecosystems' and is published  in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Related topics