Urban Robots: Street Smarts

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Urban Robots: Street Smarts

Technologists and business titans are all pushing the limits of technology in a breathtaking sprint to bring robots to our streets. Their vision for using urban robots in our cities seems to be limitless. We ask how far, and how fast, is this progressing, and to what ends?

by Gordon Feller

Robots in cities are the stuff of science fiction or, at least, that’s how it used to be. Today in cities around the globe, robots are making their presence felt, even when they operate behind the scenes.
Just for a moment, consider the Amazon or Flipkart delivery systems in India (Flipkart is the company now owned by Amazon’s archrival, Walmart). Their warehouses are filled with small, medium, and large robots, which is one major reason your timeframe – from click-and-purchase to delivery – is getting faster every day. Amazon is said to be the world’s largest user of such robots, and the company made this apparent in 2019 when it spent a princely sum to acquire Colorado (USA) start-up Canvas Technology, a firm that specializes in warehouse robotics.

Urban Robots - Flipkart-F - Inc42

Down the Rabbit Hole: Indian start-up Flipkart has invested heavily in warehouse automation to compete with Amazon and domestic rival Snapdeal. The company, which was recently acquired by Walmart, has deployed a swarm of 100-odd automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to pick products from a conveyor belt, scan them, and then drop them down a chute that’s assigned to a particular pin code. The robots work in a tight grid, using collision avoidance technology to ensure free movement.

Bringing the technologies from Canvas into Amazon followed on from a long string of other Amazon moves that took the corporate giant much deeper into the world of robots. It all started, at least from the public’s viewpoint, with the announcement that Amazon was buying Kiva Systems for $775m in March 2012. Kiva has been renamed Amazon Robotics and its mission has expanded from robots focused on finding, sorting, and moving smaller items or boxes in warehouses. In fact, earlier in 2019 Amazon entered into a seven-year agreement with Balyo, a French company that sells autonomous forklifts.

Urban Robots - Kiva Amazon Robotics - Image Credit: Amazon Robotics

Flattops: Amazon is considered the heaviest robot user in the world. It recently acquired Canvas Technology, whose autonomous warehouse carts use 3D images to navigate within tight environments.

This year is proving to be the year that indoor robots, previously confined to warehouses, are making a big move into the outdoors. In the non-military domain, drones are sending images to the cloud and to ground-based servers where machines powered by software sift through the data to reveal small details, tasks that would otherwise be like finding needles in haystacks. These software “robots” inside machines work hard, work fast, and work cheap, in ways that make it much more economical and accurate than using human labor to sort through photos to find answers to questions. Some of these questions are mundane and noncritical: “Where are the parking spaces all flled at this peak hour of the day and where can new parking spaces be established, whether temporary or permanent?” Other questions are more critical, often aimed at helping to safeguard the lives of people: “During this flood, where is the water rising so fast that we need to deploy a boat or helicopter to effect rescue?”

Urban Robots: Figure Problems with Robots - source ©: laf.github.io/LPN/

Lots of Problems: Warehouse robots are increasingly moving out of doors to find solutions to questions such as “why are parking spaces always full at peak hours and where can we establish new ones?”.

Analysts at IDC report that, as of 2019, the universe of urban solutions reached a vast scale, with such size and heft that it constituted a multi-trillion-dollar industry. The reasons are numerous but the primary one boils down to simple mathematics: more than half of all human beings on this planet are found inside cities. Many of the largest concentrations are located in the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean), and these are growing fast. Demographers at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) report that the growth rates for these larger cities will not be slowing any time soon, and this also applies to medium-sized cities.

Disrupted Pipelines

Amid what sounds like bad news about cities, there’s also some good news: the urban solutions industry is wide open and aching for disruption. One example should suffice to make the point clearly: potable and non-potable urban water systems.

Why bother with inspection robots in water pipes? A robot’s capacity to deliver live data in any pipeline makes it safer than manned inspections. Robots are ideal for wastewater applications, especially where health and safety regulations are keeping people out of pipelines. Capable robots are already available just for this purpose – and they’ve been specially designed for water, wastewater, power, and industrial applications. In turbid environments, or in wastewater conditions, the robot’s tracks can crawl over sand and solids with ease.

Who’s developed urban robots solutions? PureRobotics is a multi-sensor pipeline inspection platform that helps utilities screen their network for problem areas and gain a better understanding on the condition of their assets. The robotic crawler is designed to easily transport sensors and tools vast distances through drained pipes or while submerged in water or wastewater.
The PureRobotics standard system features high-density, digital closed-circuit television for live video streams. The robot can be equipped with a variety of tools, including an inertial measurement unit, 3D lidar scanning tools, or pull-condition assessment tools such as 2D laser technology that can precisely measure a pipeline’s size, shape, and level of corrosion. The latest generation produces detailed, real-time, internal-condition data in about half the time of the previous generation. This reduces inspection time and correspondingly reduces facility downtime.
The system features a robotic crawler that can travel vast distances carrying an array of tools and sensors that provide detailed, real time internal condition data about the integrity of pipelines. It integrates easily into a pipeline management strategy to help pipeline owners make more informed decisions.
What differentiates this robot is its capacity to quickly travel vast distances through difficult pipe conditions (a huge benefit during time-critical shutdowns) and it is safer than manned inspections. The robot’s design also allows it to be adapted to inspect a broad variety of pipeline sizes and types.

Where is this being done? The city of Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada, owns and operates more than 900 kilometers of water and wastewater piping for its residents and customers. It also pumps more than 78 million liters of raw water daily for industrial customers. The operation of the mill relies on water delivered via a raw-water transmission main for its processes, so managing its integrity is critical to maintaining continued operation and production.

Papermill in Saint John in New Brunswick

Taking the Waters: Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada, pumps more than 78 million liters of raw water daily to households, where water quality is crucial. Robot crawlers equipped with high-definition CCTV cameras deliver a live video stream from inside the pipe system to monitor conditions in the main.

Sensitive to issues of sustainability and the environment, the city chose to start proactively assessing the condition of the transmission main’s 1.5 m and 1.35 m diameter prestressed concrete cylinder pipe (PCCP) that delivers raw industrial water from Spruce Lake to the mill. Since 2012, critical infrastructure specialist Pure Technologies has been involved in the condition assessment of the main, whose ownership is shared by the city (7.3 km long / 4.5 m diameter) and Irving (1 km / 0.6 m). The most recent condition assessment data was gathered successfully in the spring of 2017 within the time constraints of a scheduled mill shutdown.

PureRobotics in the Pipeline

A Closer Look: PureRobotics’ multisensor pipeline inspection platform features a robotic crawler that can travel vast distances carrying an array of tools and sensors that provide detailed, real-time internal condition data about the integrity of pipelines.

Pure Technologies’ PureRobotics crawler is equipped with electromagnetic inspection technology and a high-definition CCTV camera that delivers and records a live video stream from inside the pipe. Inspection can be completed with manned, robotic, and free swimming platforms. In this case, the robotic platform was selected because the profile of the line is such that it is difficult to empty. PureRobotics can travel a total of 2.9 kilometers from a single point of access and the latest generation of robot is twice as fast as its predecessor, traveling at 25 meters per minute, a huge benefit during time critical shutdowns.

Driving the Revolution with Urban Robots

Things are moving fast in the selfdriving automotive world and all the old and familiar manufacturers – which includes companies like Ford (through Argo.ai), GM (through Cruise), Daimler, Volvo, and Toyota – are busy with designs for robotic fleets that will navigate seamlessly around our streets to automate “last mile” delivery services. These giants are being joined by new names: Uber, Lyft, Nutonomy, Waymo, Baidu, and dozens of others. Altogether their autonomous vehicles have driven millions of miles in tests and are now close to wide adoption. Leading the pack is Waymo, a spinoff from Google under its parent company Alphabet.

Waymo is working closely with the ecosystem.
John Krafcik, Waymo


Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik recently announced the expansion of the company’s Waymo Driver technology to Class 8 trucks, which include the gigantic semi vehicles. “We’re working closely with the ecosystem – shippers, truck makers, and tier-one suppliers – to ensure a successful deployment,” he said last September during his keynote remarks at the International Automobile Exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany.
In Michigan (USA), Paul Krutko is president and CEO of Ann Arbor Spark, a public–private partnership that brings together many players, including start-ups, the University of Michigan, and older, established companies. He says he sees early indicators of a different urban future, one where new kinds of services are powered by data and urban robots. One of the successful robot-focused start-ups that Spark has nurtured in Ann Arbor is May Mobility, which is already providing proprietary autonomous vehicles that run shuttle services in a number of cities.

May mobility offers a glimpse into the urban future.
Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor Spark


In his role as the elected president on the board of the International Association of Science Parks, Krutko visits more than a dozen countries each year. He says his travels have given him a glimpse of an urban future which is powered by advanced math, science, and technology, and by the engineering that harnesses all of these insights to deliver new city services.

Urban Robots: Ann Arbor Robo Shuttle - source ©: CleanTechnica

Getting Around: In Ann Arbor, Michigan, May Mobility is already successfully running robo shuttles, enabling the company to develop a slew of innovative city services.

Urban Robots: All Play and no Work

Increasingly, non-mobility functions are being moved into the realm of machine-to-machine, disconnecting humans from daily workloads. There are clearly some potential conflicts here, where the added material benefits are not always in sync with new socioeconomic gains. As these conflicts pile up, even some robo advocates are hesitating – as they should. As we move toward a world where robots are running our cities, how should we feel about this coming tsunami of innovative service robots?

What does it mean for city-based workers? In July 2018, Nick Wingfeld wrote an article for The New York Times entitled “As Amazon Pushes Forward with Robots, Workers Find New Roles,” an especially optimistic assessment of the labor market’s ability to adapt to fast changing technological innovations. The bottom line is that the future of employment may well mean a lot less paid work.

What does it mean for ordinary city-based residents? The advantages of added convenience and comfort are plentiful. Consider the simple goods package, moved through the air by drones, decongesting streets currently clogged with ground-based delivery vehicles. Amazon has already invested large sums into perfecting their urban drone delivery service, with successful tests conducted in both the UK and US. Google’s sister company Wing Aviation has also launched a drone delivery service in partnership with Walgreens, the US-based retail giant. Flying drones are not the only new city residents. San Francisco residents have become accustomed to the city’s role as a testbed for startups and inventors of every stripe. One such venture-capital-financed enterprise, Postmates, said in August 2019 that it expects to use the first-ever permit to test sidewalk delivery robots in the city. In the UK, Starship Technologies launched the first delivery robot system in October 2018 for a modest monthly subscription of £7.99 (€8.97).
The downside of all of this will undoubtedly be the loss of some of the civil liberties and everyday freedoms which we now take for granted.

What does it mean for the growing gap between rich and poor? One scenario being discussed would have the masses of us, without great wealth, dependent upon the rich few who own and control the urban robots. Jobs would only be available to humans whenever and wherever the robots were not yet useful or efficient. The key word here is “yet.”
In 2014, The Wall Street Journal newspaper’s online readers woke up to a scary video: “Harvard Unleashes Swarm of Robots.” As reported in more depth by IEEE Spectrum Magazine, it appears that a swarm of one thousand Harvard RoboBees (robotic bees) was just the starting point. NASA pushed forward, in 2018, with a swarm of MarsBees designed, ultimately, to explore the Martian landscape. Whether it’s flying robots, terrestrial robots, or swimming robots, their uses inside cities are numerous – utilizing the RoboBee’s distributed sensing, fault tolerance, and other abilities to move through and assess a sewer system, for example.

Urban Robots - RoboBees Harvard  -Credit: Microrobotics Lab, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

The Bee’s Knees: Harvard researchers have figured out a way for thousands of robots to coordinate their actions so that they can mimic biological processes. RoboBees will be able to cooperate, for instance to achieve environmental cleanup or respond quickly to disasters.

Some scientists, and their investors, are now talking about urban robots taking over from real bee swarms that have been suffering from a specialized kind of global eco-devastation called colony collapse. By expertly mimicking their biological cousins, RoboBees are being developed that can infiltrate and influence a colony’s behavior in ways that their designers believe will aid humanity. For more than two centuries, science fiction authors and futurists have been preoccupied with just these kinds of possibilities. These “cultural imagineers” have helped us with earlier mega-transitions, so we ask them to step up this time with some answers to the question of what we might expect for humanity’s prospects inside cities over the coming years. Some futurists assume that this process, where urban robots run our cities, is simply inexorable. Their assessments have taken on new weight since artificial intelligence and machine learning advance to such a degree that robots are now building and programming more robots – and each new version has better and sharper skills than the last generation.

Urban Robots - Google Waymo - source ©: Waymo

Taking the Lead: Google’s Waymo subsidiary is leading the pack by expanding its driverless technology from cars to Class 8 trucks and giant semi vehicles.

The celebrated science-fiction writer William Gibson once said that “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” The smarter observers will be looking around with sharp focus, examining the small indicators of big changes coming fast to their city.

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