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Building a Smart City from scratch – VII

TIAgo, a robot designed to interact with people to help them in a variety of situations in a urban environment. Image credit: Pal Robotics

7. Robotics

Smart Cities and smart citizens. This, for quite a while, was the focus of discussion about the evolution of cities. Get ready for an additional player: smart robots.

Many companies are now working to offer urban robots to municipalities, business and citizens; the European Commission has funded the European Robotics League that has now created the Smart Cities Robotic Challenge whose first venue is coming on September 16th (to 22nd) in Milton Keynes, UK (watch the clip).

Designing a smart city from scratch today means to consider smart robots as integral players. Robots are already pervasive in industry, in warehouses and are now moving into retail, hotels, hospitals and homes. If self-driving cars are still in the future, drones and autonomous delivery robots are starting to make their way into the urban environment (although in niches, like university campuses).

China has been lagging behind in robotisation of industry till the last decade but now it is leading. Image credit: LSE Business Review

South Korea and Japan are leading the pack for urban robots, but China is coming up fast (as an example with robot-cooks and robot-waiters in some restaurants) leveraging on its vast base of industrial robots (see graphic).

Having robots operate in a urban environment is way more complex than having them in an industrial environment: there is much more uncertainty and variety in a urban environment and robots operating in it need to be way smarter and today this also means way costlier.

In the context of designing a smart city from scratch there are ways to create a robot-friendly environment (like in Masdar, separating the living space where people roam from the transportation space (with self driving vehicles) and from the infrastructure space where specifically designed maintenance robots can operate.

Additionally, in a city designed from scratch, like BleuTech Park, one can embed beacons and other kind of IoT that greatly simplify robotic operation. At BleuTech Park robots will be used from the very beginning in the construction of the city. Bertrand Dano, chief technology and information officer at Bleutech Park Properties, commented: “The rise of digitization and robotics in construction will increase productivity and efficiency. Wearable technology will increase workplace safety, particularly in heavy lifting and repetition. We believe in the future of robotics and their ability to improve jobsite safety and employee’s health.”

Several ordinary and exceptional activities needed in a (smart) city can now be addressed by robots. Cleaning streets and sidewalks, checking the status of infrastructures and (at least partly) repairing them, delivery of goods, helping people to move around and carrying loads like groceries from the store to home (particularly people with disabilities), acting as watch-dog to ensure security and safety… the list of activities that can see a participation of robots is long and it is getting longer.

Additionally robots can help “inside” the city buildings, at home, in stores, in offices, hospitals, train stations, kindergarden… In a near future these robots will be able to acquire emphatic interactions making them more suitable to mingle with citizens. Each robot will have its own digital twin and this can interact with other digital twins, including the city digital twin (Singapore is a forerunner in this area).

The link between a robot and its digital twin is also a bridge towards soft robots, roaming the virtual city space that can be made visible to citizens through augmented reality.

Get ready to interact and co-habit with robots. My guess is it will not be all rosey. We will find ourselves arguing with them and possibly getting angry with that stupid robot that is not doing what I would like it to do!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.