Robotics and Climate Change

February 19, 2024  •   David Pring-Mill

By David Pring-Mill

The following text has been excerpted from the analysis “Robotics Trends (2023-2025),” which is available as a free download. To support this innovative research or contribute to future papers, join our Deep Tech membership.

While robotics developments could mean economic turbulence, they may also help to weather literal storms by enabling more sustainable business practices or even monitoring and influencing environmental conditions. For instance, academic projects have leveraged biomimetics to emulate the form factors of nature, resulting in robots that are better positioned to glean data from real-world environments.

“Biomimetics” draws inspiration from nature, emulating the models, systems, and elements already functioning and evident in the areas outside of our own creation. It’s becoming a leading paradigm for technological development in important fields. For example, aquatic or amphibious soft robots can mimic biological form factors – such as fish, mussels, lily pads, turtles, and stingrays – to sensitively navigate marine environments. Such applications can also track climate change-related data at great oceanic depths and sites, including trenchesunderwater glacial walls, and marine microclimates, which would be inaccessible by other sensors or tracking methods.

This interdisciplinary innovation might inspire better standards and regulations for the “ocean economy.” The robotic progress might even branch off to unrelated fields, such as healthcare, due to mind-boggling advancements, such as the integration of living cells into soft robotics that enable movements that couldn’t be replicated using a strictly mechanical method.

Of existential importance, these robots could force policymakers to grapple with climate change in more committed, effective ways. With robots reporting from the scene, observing environmental impacts and fine-tuning predictive models, we could introduce new and improved metrics of political accountability. For example, the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is responsible for roughly 4% of the overall sea level rise of 1.5 inches per decade. Researchers used an underwater, cylindrical robot called Icefin to study the underside, and now we know that this so-called “Doomsday Glacier” is not just melting, it’s “shattering.”

On the land and in the skies, robots are being directed to optimize agriculture and infrastructure. Researchers have even developed tiny robotic pollinators that can fly using wind and light. By mimicking the troubled bees, other insects, and dandelion seeds, and, in turn, inspiring future robotics developments, these prototypes might help to sustain ecosystems and promote biodiversity. One example, the RoboBee X-Wing, is only 5 centimeters long with a weight of 259 milligrams. Another example, Beewise, provides a robotic beehive that houses actual bees. This new era of robots will be designed to augment what we consider beneficial and deter what’s undesirable. As an example of the latter: a Carbon Robotics unit can already destroy 100,000 weeds per hour by using computer vision, a deep learning model, and laser modules.

Meanwhile, the West Japan Rail Company is utilizing a crane arm with a robotic torso, mounted atop a service car, to maintain railway power lines, iterating upon its world-leading mass transit. Effective mass transit can cut local emissions in half, yet public transit is frequently neglected as a climate action policy measure. In South Korea, Qcells, a subsidiary of Hanwha Solutions, uses AI and robots throughout the entire production process of its solar cells and modules.

The Edmonton, Alberta-based robotic services provider Copperstone Technologies depicts its robotic units overcoming rugged landscapes and harsh environments. For example, its amphibious 400 kg. (881 lbs.) unit HELIX Neptune is a screw-propelled vehicle adapted for tailings, which are defined by the local Alberta Energy Regulator as the environmental aftermath of mining, typically consisting of sand, silt, clay, water, and some residual bitumen in the case of oil sands mining.

The HELIX Neptune unit can roll over hard ground, or crawl through soft mud deposits, or even float because “the patented screw drives are pontoons that enable flotation, with a helical grouser acting as a propeller when spun at high speed in the water.” Copperstone’s industrial robots-as-a-service (RaaS) offering is meant to serve the functions of surveying, sampling, geotechnical investigations, and bathymetry, with pricing based on capabilities, time, and risk.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, “oil sands tailings are kept in man-made basins called ponds that are designed to hold the tailings that were produced from the mine. Water from tailings ponds is sent back to the extraction plant and used again. In fact, up to 90% of the water an operater uses is recycled from a tailings pond, which really helps to reduce the amount of water used from other sources.” While this process is imperfect, the argument is made that with the right review process, stakeholder engagement, management, technical monitoring, enforcement, and new research and technologies, it’s possible to mitigate environmental or community risks, then gradually restore these tailings into natural habitats.

Copperstone Technologies explains: “Further, the dynamic nature of the geotechnical parameters of the tailings and the composition of the materials, as well as the limitations of the pond construction and support mechanisms allows organizations to identify areas of concern and proactively manage the tailings storage facilities.”

The environmental impacts of these energy industry activities are sometimes visually stark. Industry groups have claimed that the impressions from this imagery can be misrepresentative; Canada Action contended that “open mines will always look like an environmental catastrophe, but that could not be further from the truth.” Either way, we, as humans, go to some extreme measures to meet the demands of economic development; the implication here is that robots could help to introduce a new layer of oversight that promotes responsibility and restoration. In fact, just over half (52%) of senior leadership across industrial sectors have indicated that automating their operations would positively impact environmental sustainability.

It’s crucial to emphasize that robotics alone cannot address these formidable challenges. NEURA Robotics CEO David Reger told Policy2050 that technologies and prototypes for cleaning up environmental damage, such as fishing trash and plastics from waterways and the ocean, are already up for these tasks and could be active on a large scale. However, he elaborated, “Robots will not be able to help us with this problem any more than a spade can help us work the field. The fundamental attitude of living sustainably and in harmony with the planet must be internalized by mankind itself. After all, robots fundamentally serve humans, and thus, robots will always implement the orders of their owners and users on both a small and a large scale. There are already many good solutions for monitoring, evaluating, and predicting environmental or climate data, even without robotics, and artificial intelligence can interpret huge amounts of this data.”

When, then, can robots be dispatched globally for environmental cleanup tasks? Reger suggested, “Viable models have also already been developed for financing such projects. However, it is true that political conditions and incentive systems urgently need to be created here, which not only encourage but enable the manufacturers behind this pollution to finance and carry out such actions on a large scale.”

Excerpt from “Robotics Trends (2023–2025),” published by

The full analysis, titled “Robotics Trends (2023–2025),” is available in our open-access section.

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