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How Autonomous Systems Can Change the Natural World

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An international research campaign involving 170 experts led by the University of Leeds has provided insight into how technologies like drones, robots, and autonomous systems can dramatically alter the natural world.

The research was published on Jan. 4 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. It included 77 academics and practitioners as authors.

Improving and Monitoring Nature

More specifically, the researchers demonstrated how we can improve the way in which we monitor nature with these technologies. They can help identify emerging pests, help care for plants, and allow people to engage the natural world more.

The increased use of robotics, autonomous vehicles, and drones could mean reduced traffic congestion and pollution. By improving these aspects of the urban environment, cities will become more enjoyable for citizens even as populations grow.

However, it is not an automatic given that these will benefit the environment, as there is still the risk that advances in robotics and automation could have a negative impact. New robots and drones could also mean new sources of waste and pollution, damaging this urban nature. These advances might also require the re-planning of cities to provide more space for them to operate, and green areas could be sacrificed for this extra space. As for access to green space, the technologies could worsen existing inequalities.

Dr. Martin Dallimer from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds is lead author.

“Technology, such as robotics, has the potential to change almost every aspect of our lives,” Dallimer says. “As a society, it is vital that we proactively try to understand any possible side effects and risks of our growing use of robots and automated systems.

“Although the future impacts on urban green spaces and nature are hard to predict, we need to make sure that the public, policy makers and robotics developers are aware of the potential pros and cons, so we can avoid detrimental consequences and fully realise the benefits.”

Survey of 170 Experts

The research involved a survey of 170 experts from 35 countries.

Participants were asked to give their views on potential opportunities and challenges regarding urban biodiversity and ecosystems, specifically involving the increased use of robotics and autonomous systems. These technologies were defined as those that can sense, analyze, interact with, and manipulate the physical environment.

Specific technologies could include drones, self-driving cars, robots capable of repairing infrastructure, and wireless sensor networks for monitoring applications. Other potential applications include autonomous transport, waste collection, infrastructure maintenance, policing, and precision agriculture.

According to Dr. Mark Goddard, “Spending time in urban green spaces and interacting with nature brings a range of human health and well-being benefits, and robots are likely to transform many of the ways in which we experience and gain benefits from urban nature.

“Understanding how robotics and autonomous systems will affect our interaction with nature is vital for ensuring that our future cities support wildlife that is accessible to all.”

The research was part of Leeds’ Self Repairing Cities project. The project aims to use these technologies to maintain urban infrastructure without causing disruption to citizens.



Alex McFarland is an AI journalist and writer exploring the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has collaborated with numerous AI startups and publications worldwide.