Applying robotics to existing climate solutions can accelerate us to net zero
To mitigate climate change, we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Currently, the world emits 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, and we need to cut this amount in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This requires a tenfold increase in the United States' renewable energy capacity over the next twelve years, which means building an additional 400,000 wind turbines and 2.5 billion solar panels. To hasten progress, the Inflation Reduction Act allocates billions of dollars for clean energy projects. However, the installation and maintenance of these facilities are often unsuitable for human workers.
The fight against climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing our planet today. With the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy, it is clear that we need all the help we can get. One technology that is playing an increasingly important role in this fight is robotics. In this paper, we will explore how robots are revolutionizing the fight against climate change in ways that you may never have imagined.
Robots in Renewable Energy:
Renewable energy is one of the most important tools we have in the fight against climate change. However, the deployment of renewable energy sources like wind and solar farms can be challenging and costly. This is where robots come in. By automating many of the tasks involved in the construction and maintenance of renewable energy infrastructure, robots can help to reduce costs and increase efficiency.
For example, robots can be used to install solar panels on pre-installed foundations, freeing workers from heavy lifting and reducing the risk of injury. Similarly, robots can be used for the maintenance and repair of wind turbines, which is critical for their continued operation and efficiency. By using robots for these tasks, we can increase the efficiency and reliability of renewable energy infrastructure, helping to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Robots in Agriculture:
Another area where robots are making a significant impact in the fight against climate change is agriculture. Agriculture is responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, and robots can help to reduce emissions by improving agricultural practices.
For example, robots can be used for precision agriculture, which involves using sensors and other technologies to optimize crop yields and reduce waste. Robots can also be used for tasks such as planting and harvesting, reducing the need for manual labor and increasing efficiency. By improving agricultural practices in this way, we can reduce emissions and increase the sustainability of our food systems.
Robots in Transportation:
Transportation is another major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and robots are playing an increasingly important role in reducing these emissions. One example of this is the development of autonomous electric vehicles, which have the potential to greatly reduce emissions from the transportation sector.
Autonomous electric vehicles can be used for a wide range of applications, from public transportation to logistics and delivery. By eliminating the need for human drivers, these vehicles can reduce emissions and increase efficiency. In addition, autonomous vehicles can be used to optimize routes and reduce congestion, further reducing emissions from the transportation sector.
How Can Roboticists help?
As a roboticist, what I call the 3 D's (Dirty, dull, and dangerous) tasks as the ideal application for robots. However, there's a scarcity of roboticists working on climate change due to a lack of awareness of necessary and urgent applications. After speaking with several climate robotics founders, I've discovered ways for roboticists to contribute to climate change solutions.
The first robot I created from scratch was SS MAPR, an autonomous boat that collects multi-depth water-quality data for water departments. They use this data to monitor river pollution and control pollution sources. After six months of arduous work, SS MAPR completed its maiden voyage with water samples and data collected from the bottom of the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. That was my eureka moment, realizing that prototyping and coding resulted in faster and cheaper data access to drive regulatory actions. I want to create more robots that enhance our environment.
After witnessing the rampant wildfires in the Bay Area in 2020, I founded Nirva Labs to write about climate robotics opportunities. Surprisingly, many climate robotics founders have voiced the shortage of roboticists in climate technology, disproportionate to robotics' immense potential for solving climate issues. Most of the solutions to climate change are in nonrobotic forms, making it challenging to see the need for robotic inventions at first glance. However, robotics can help scale up these existing solutions to reach net zero in time.
To understand why robotics is essential for mitigating climate change, we can look at the automotive industry. For a long time, humans made cars until General Motors introduced a robotic arm to help in the assembly line. Today, Toyota SUV assembly takes 84 percent less time per part than the Ford Model T in 1925, even though the assembly process is more complicated. Robots free humans from repetitive tasks while increasing efficiency, making them vital in scaling up existing climate solutions.
The renewable energy sector is an excellent place to look for climate robotics opportunities. Robots can help remove the labor bottleneck for installing solar and wind farms. AES, an energy giant, developed an automated solar farm construction robot that installs solar panels on pre-installed foundations three times faster than humans. Robots also help in offshore wind-farm construction, where high wind conditions limit installations from April to November. X Laboratory developed motion-compensation technology to keep a crane stable during the blade-installation process, increasing installation days to all year round.
Renewable energy facilities need routine maintenance to remain efficient. Unleash uses drones to speed up blade inspection, while Aerones developed a tethered drone supported by a rope system that expands the task envelope from inspection to cleaning, coating, and simple repairs.
To contribute to solving climate change directly, roboticists can join an existing climate-robotics initiative or start one on their own. There are many technically feasible opportunities in climate robotics that can impact climate change, but it's essential to watch out for the solution's overall climate impact. Fully understanding the life cycle of an existing climate solution and identifying how automation can accelerate it is crucial.
Climate change is the most urgent issue of our time.
To achieve the Paris Agreement goal, Robots can also help with the maintenance of existing renewable-energy facilities, which is critical for their continued operation and efficiency. For example, wind turbines need regular inspection and repair, which can be dangerous and expensive for human technicians. Drones and tethered drones can be used for inspection, while robots can be used for tasks such as cleaning, coating, and simple repairs. By using robots for routine maintenance, renewable-energy facilities can operate more efficiently and reliably, helping to increase their contribution to the overall energy mix.
In addition to renewable energy, there are many other areas where robotics can be used to tackle climate change. For example, robots can be used to improve agriculture practices, which are responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Robots can help with tasks such as precision agriculture, planting, and harvesting, reducing waste and increasing efficiency. Overall, there are many exciting opportunities for roboticists to contribute to the fight against climate change. By using robots to scale up existing climate solutions, we can increase efficiency and reduce costs, helping to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
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