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A role for robotics in sustainable development?


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In a sustainable economic model, energy and material resources are limited. How would robotics need to be adapted to this model in order to play a useful role? This paper is an attempt at exploring the concepts for the role for robotics in sustainable development. Industrial robotics is often associated with an unsustainable economic model. However, robotics also provides qualitative benefits through its precision, strength, sensing capabilities and computing power. New applications and deployment models can be devised that improve sustainability and quality of life. These may require new approaches to the design of robots, robot-using systems and IT systems that employ methods of robotics and AI. Robotics for sustainable development is an exciting challenge where research, education and industry in both developed and developing countries can equally contribute and benefit.
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Proc. of IEEE Africon'2011, 13-15 Sept., Livingstone, Zambia
A Role for Robotics in Sustainable Development?
Guido Bugmann
Centre for Robotic and Neural Systems
University of Plymouth
Plymouth, United Kingdom
Mel Siegel and Rachel Burcin
Robotic Institute
Carnegie Melon University
Pittsburgh, USA,
Abstract In a sustainable economic model, energy and
material resources are limited. How would robotics need to be
adapted to this model in order to play a useful role? This paper
is an attempt at exploring the concepts for the role for robotics
in sustainable development. Industrial robotics is often
associated with an unsustainable economic model. However,
robotics also provides qualitative benefits through its precision,
strength, sensing capabilities and computing power. New
applications and deployment models can be devised that
improve sustainability and quality of life. These may require
new approaches to the design of robots, robot-using systems
and IT systems that employ methods of robotics and AI.
Robotics for sustainable development is an exciting challenge
where research and industry in both developed and developing
countries can equally contribute and benefit.
Keywords-Sustainable development, sustainable robotics,
robot applications, education
I. I
In developed countries, energy and materials have been
almost free during their whole development process. This
model is not available to developing countries [1],
essentially because the world cannot support its whole
population with the same level of energy and material
consumption per capita as people in the developed world.
This raises the question of the role and form of robotics in a
more sustainable form of economy.
This paper is intended as a reflection with many
unanswered questions. It is hoped that this will initiate a
discussion, and if it emerges that robotics has a useful place
in a sustainable world, this should hopefully be followed by
case studies with financial support from governments, aid
organizations, private enterprises and increased attention
from academic institutions.
The rest of the paper develops the above question into
whether robots are part of the problem, part of the solution,
and the role of education in production, service, and
education itself.
A. Do robots support an energy-hungry mode of
Currently the initial investment in an industrial robot is
recovered in 2 years. After that, the hourly cost of an
industrial robot is essentially the cost of the energy
consumed, typically 0.3US$ per hour, leading to an annual
cost about 50 time smaller than that of a manual labourer in
developed countries [2]. Thus, it makes economic sense to
make use of robots in production. This will stay true for
many years to come, even with rising energy prices. Many
modern products require the high precision of robots, e.g.
the assembly small components in mobile phones, which
cannot be adequately achieved by human assemblers. An
industrial robot typically consumes 150KWh per day,
compared to 56KWh per household in Europe and 14KWh
in Asia. The UK, for instance, has around 50 robots per
10,000 inhabitants and the fraction of total energy consumed
by robots is very small. However, robots use electricity.
This form of energy constitutes 25% of the energy used by
UK households, but only 5% of household energy use in
India, and much less in Africa [3]. Based on these figures
and back-of-the-envelope calculations converting them to
developing countries, in these places, energy consumed by
robots in their current form cannot be neglected.
B. Does robotics promote over-production and under-
Production made more efficient by the use of robots is
an example of high specialisation: A small number of
workers become very efficient at producing certain goods.
These must then be traded at the right (low) price for other
workers to be able to acquire them with the income
generated by their own work. Specialisation pre-dates
robotics, and robotics has not introduced fundamentally new
elements in the market economy. However, robotics enables
much higher levels of specialisation which could lead to
instability: If fewer and fewer salary-earning workers are
actually producing goods, fewer people will be employed
and even very cheap goods will not find customers. This
then leads to even fewer people being employed. It is an
open question – worth studying - whether this is a real risk,
as is how it can be avoided in a sustainable economic model.
Proc. of IEEE Africon'2011, 13-15 Sept., Livingstone, Zambia
C. Does robotics consume rare materials?
From this point of view, robots are not different from
any machine with high precision and high durability parts,
or from any computing device. Robot manufacturing will
require sustainable solutions similar to those for other
products. Also necessary to answer this is a life-cycle
context that takes into account the economic and
environmental cost of producing; maintaining; and
disposing of the robots.
Robots can help access new resources, for instance
under the seas, or under lakes (e.g. underwater
logging robot [4]), or conduct mining in dangerous
environments. But this may be only delaying, if not
accelerating, the moment where resources run out.
Robots can help recycling resources. E.g. through
their ability to sense the type of plastic using
spectroscopic methods, which humans are not
capable of.
Robots can help reduce waste during industrial
production, agricultural production and elsewhere in
the food chain.
Robots could enable production methods that
generate less polluting by-products, although there is
no obvious example of such applications yet, it
seems likely, even if only by more economical use of
materials and supplies.
Robots could enable the repair of products which
nowadays are thrown away when they malfunction.
For example, the ability of robots to handle very
small components could make it feasible to even
repair and upgrade electronic appliances, computers
and peripherals that are now discarded.
In the agriculture domain, robots could help monitor
soil conditions, the health of plants and animals and
adapt actions to very local conditions, even plant by
plant [5], in addition to a possible role in cultivating
and harvesting crops
Robots can help increased the yield in food
production. For instance, use of a milking robot (e.g.
DeLaval Milking robot) increases the number of
litres per day that a cow produces, because the cow
can access the robot at any time. An interesting point
here is that it is probably the voluntary nature of the
milking that is the key factor. In a country with low
wages, it may be possible to only use the lessons
learnt from robotics, e.g. a continuous milking
service increases the yield.
Robots, robotics and AI technologies can help
manage small power generation units, e.g. biogas,
solar, etc.
Robots could save transport costs through flexible
tele-presence, e.g. in health care. In such
applications, robots could conduct local analyses of
physiological samples.
Similarly, robots could monitor water contamination,
air quality and other environmental measurements,
and improve health.
The AI skills of robots could help in many ways and
increase the effectiveness with knowledge provision
and applications.
The use of robot platforms could reduce the cost of
technical education and increase its effectiveness.
A. New application and deployment models.
In the developed world, robots are typically used in
large-scale production units, or for large-scale store or
container management, or large surfaces cleaning. Personal
robots have either limited functionality or will be expensive
helpers for a minority of users. Such robots are useful in
some aspects of sustainable economies, but new deployment
models could also be devised, such as “community” robots,
e.g. supporting access to health care and knowledge, or to
execute punctual hard work, or to provide sensing when
needed in the food production cycle, or to check the quality
of a sample of water, or help calculate costs or dimensions
for some design, etc. Robots could help manage the cycle of
water, or local energy production, or inventory management,
or transport rationalisation, etc. The key for such new
models is the provision of services that are of value to the
users. It is difficult to determine this from a distance and
awareness of local conditions and of the possibilities of
robotics is necessary for new solutions to emerge.
B. Redesigning robot components.
A robot is a multi-component device requiring multi-
disciplinary knowledge, e.g. sensing, actuation and more-or-
less intelligent control. New designs could make use of only
some of the components in their current form. For instance,
if electricity consumption through actuation is an issue,
electric motors could be replaced by windup clockwork
motors, an external combustion Stirling engine, or a biogas
engine, etc. This would allow preserving the qualitative
benefits of the robot, such as accuracy, while eliminating its
reliance on high power electricity supply. Solutions of this
type would require substantial research in mechanical
engineering, mechanical-electrical energy conversion on
small scales, and intelligent control.
C. New robotic concepts.
Not all components of a robot are needed all the time.
Many of the tasks in section 3 rely on sensing. Sensors are
generally light and consume little power. Thus, a sensing
device could be carried around by a human operator. In
Proc. of IEEE Africon'2011, 13-15 Sept., Livingstone, Zambia
other applications, such as repair, a human operator may
only need the precision or the robot manipulator, but could
use his/her own senses and decision functions. Here the
robot would be merely a manipulator that could even use
human power for actuation. In general, robotic concepts
could be implemented in a variety of human-robot hybrid
systems that combine the best of the human with the best of
the robot.
V. R
21st century communities face intensifying development
challenges and competing priorities for finite resources.
Robotics and intelligent automation might help communities
improve their quality of life and contribute to sustainable
development. In the long-term, the adoption of robotics and
intelligent automation as part of a development plan must be
based upon documented opportunity, feasibility studies, and
customized technology solutions designed for the local
environment, preferably by local engineers, educators and
policy-makers. The dynamics of the 21st century presents a
myriad of challenges that require education collaboration be
at the core of knowledge production and technology
Robotics for sustainability could develop from a
combination of classical and sustainable technology and
new application models. The latter are difficult to imagine
and might best be developed by trial and error in the
environment where the solutions are used. This relies on
creative engineers and entrepreneurs fluent in the local
environment who have a working knowledge of the
principles of classical robotics and sustainable technology.
Utilizing local resources and developing talent is crucial to
the successful design and production of applied-technology
development solutions. Local technologists and engineers
‘have a unique understanding of the relevant problems as
well as the cultural context, available resources, strengths
and challenges that will influence the creation of innovative
and useful solutions’ [6]. The process may begin with a few
collaboratively designed and implemented pilots and a small
network of stakeholders. Educators occupy the essential role
of turning this practical experience into a scalable body of
knowledge and building appropriate curriculum and training
programs that prepare local talent to design, build, and
maintain these technology systems.
An initial step toward building and sharing knowledge
for sustainable robotics development and application should
be the development of a Community of Practice (COP) (Fig.
1). Communities of Practice are an effective instrument to
encourage south-south and south-south-north collaboration
around key curriculum and education policy & development
topics [7]. South-south collaboration includes for instance
sharing expertise on secondary education in the Middle East
and North Africa (UNICEF workshop in Jordan).
Encouraging examples of South-South-North collaborations
include the Feed the Future Programme through which the
US cooperates with Brazil to bolster Mozambique’s
agricultural productivity. Specifically, the US funds and
helps to organize targeted education activities based on
Brazil’s agricultural-extension experiences. Some Brazilian
seed varieties are well suited to Mozambique’s climate,
offering higher yields and better resistance to disease and
pests [10]. COPs allow all to benefit from collective
thinking which is especially relevant here because of the
collective nature of developing technologies relevant to the
developed world ‘must not become the sole responsibility of
developing communities; the developed world must play a
crucial role in enabling such technologies’ [8].
A Community of Practice is comprised of members
‘who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a
topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this
area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ [9]. This inclusive
space would provide the multiple stakeholders (policy-
makers, practitioners, educators) a valuable instrument for
sharing and building knowledge about opportunities,
successes, and barriers. UNESCO’s International Bureau of
Education describes the purpose of these knowledge sharing
and laboratories as, ‘an open and plural space, the COP
facilitates opportunities to share visions, approaches,
experiences, innovative practices, research results and
analytical studies. It also offers concrete possibilities for
jointly undertaking programmes and projects for
institutional capacity building …’ [7]. Communities of
Practice can play an instrumental role in the transformation
of learning practices from individual institutions to
networked learning communities. Successful collaboration
focuses on deepening knowledge, applying innovative
solutions, and providing access to resources and peer-to-
peer mentoring. Institutions of higher education play an
important role by modelling this behaviour – creating multi-
national research and teaching teams focused on innovation
and problem solving.
Figure 1. Community of Practice Learning Cycle [9].
Specially, in terms of the application of robots, robotics,
and robotics and AI technologies for sustainable
development, establishing a Community of Practice is
especially vital in these exploratory stages and might aide in
Identiifcation of
Needs &
Work &
Define Research
Objectives and
Design Pilots
Build-up &
& Diseminating
of Practice
Proc. of IEEE Africon'2011, 13-15 Sept., Livingstone, Zambia
Identification of national, regional, and global
industrial and educational strengths and needs the
identification of potential local and global private-
public partnerships to address both.
Formation of a focused international network
working in concert to address fundamental needs,
analyze data, and propose solutions.
Design implementation, documentation of
collaboratively designed pilots.
Development of regular face-to-face visits, virtual
meetings, and planning for study visits.
Integration of new knowledge into curriculum and
design of academic programs, faculty capacity
building programs, and short courses.
In a sustainable economic model, energy and material
resources are limited. Robotics can contribute, but will need
to be adapted to this model in order to play a useful role.
Industrial robotics and automation currently play a
quantitative role in increasing the productivity of human
workers, which could actually have a destabilising effect on
economics. However, robots also make a qualitative
contribution to production. Sustainable productivity
management does not, in principle, preclude the use of
robots. Firstly, robots have skills such as strength, precision
and sensing often surpassing those of humans. These skills
allow the production of useful goods or services and it
would not make much sense to renounce such qualitative
benefits but ‘often’ is not ‘always’, which reminds us of the
advantage of hybrid ‘man-plus-machine’ approaches.
Secondly, robots can be redesigned to make use of
sustainable energy and material resources. Thirdly, as just
noted, new robotic system application models can be
conceived of where in a human-robot partnership constitutes
a production unit, exploiting the capabilities of both
partners. Fourthly, new applications of robotics can emerge,
that support a sustainable economic model. One can think of
application domains such as energy and resources
production, the food chain, and recycling. However, the
most useful applications are still to emerge. This can
probably only be enabled by educated and enterprising
engineers aware of local needs and conditions. Finally, in-
as-much as sustainability includes a large element of local
self-reliance, the potential of robots, robotics and AI
technologies, and AI to improve, accelerate, and support
sustainable development depends upon creative and relevant
education programs. This is, despite its last place in this list,
the opportunity that will have to be completed before the
others are actually accessible.
[1] Nair C. (2011) Consumptionomics: Asia's Role in Reshaping
Capitalism and Saving the Planet. Willey. ISBN 978-1906821494
[2] Potter R. (2004) How to Compete with Offshore Low Labor Costs:
Employ Highly Skilled Labor at 30 Cents per Hour. Robots 2004
Conference, June 9 and 10, Ypsilanti, Michigan.
[3] Dzioubinski O. and Chipman R. (1999) Trends in Consumption and
Production: Household Energy Consumption. United Nations
Discussion paper: ST/ESA/1999/DP.6
[4] Gordon, Jacob (2006). "Submarine Lumberjacks Harvest Underwater
Forests." Nov 30, 2006.
[5] Blackmore B.S. (2009) New concepts in agricultural automation.
HGCA conference – Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwickshire,
UK, 28 and 29 October 2009
[6] Mills-Tettey, G. A., Dias, M. B., & Browning, B. (2006) Teaching
technical creativity through Robotics: A case study in Ghana.
Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute Technical Report 06-46.
[7] Acedo, C. et al. “Communities of Practice in Curriculum
Development.” UNESCO International Bureau of Education.
Retrieved April 20, 2011.
[8] Mills-Tettey, G. A., Dias, M. B., & Nanayakkara, Thrishantha (2005)
Robotics, Education, and Sustainable Development. 2005 IEEE
International Conference on Robotics and Automation, April, 2005,
pp. 4248 - 4253.
[9] Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder, W. (2002) A Guide to
Managing Knowledge: Cultivating Communities of Practice.
Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 1-5781-330-8
[10] Africa Progress Report 2011. Published by The Africa Progress
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Consumption has been the fuel that has driven the engine of global capitalism. The recent financial crisis has seen the West's leading economists and policy makers urging Asia to make a conscious effort to consume more and thereby help save the global economy. Consumptionomics argues that this blinkered view needs to be replaced by a more rational approach to the challenges of the 21st century. If Asians aspire to consumption levels taken for granted in the West the results will be environmentally catastrophic across the globe. Needless to say it will also have significant geopolitical impacts as nations scramble for diminishing resources. Asian governments and leaders find themselves at a crossroads. They may either continue on the current, unsustainable path of Western-style consumption-led capitalism, disregarding the evidence, or they may realize that they hold the unenviable responsibility of leading the world to a more sustainable path. The solutions will entail making sensitive political choices and adopting certain forms of government to effect such a fundamental change of direction. This will all fly in the face of current ideological beliefs rooted in free market capitalism. But if Asia is willing to take on this responsibility it will help to save the planet whilst reshaping capitalism. Below is an excerpt of an article Chandran Nair wrote in International Herald Tribune, June 6, 2011.
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Trends in Consumption and Production: Household Energy Consumption
  • O Dzioubinski
  • R Chipman
Dzioubinski O. and Chipman R. (1999) Trends in Consumption and Production: Household Energy Consumption. United Nations Discussion paper: ST/ESA/1999/DP.6
New concepts in agricultural automation. HGCA conference – Stoneleigh Park
  • B S Blackmore
Blackmore B.S. (2009) New concepts in agricultural automation. HGCA conference – Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, UK, 28 and 29 October 2009
Submarine Lumberjacks Harvest Underwater Forests
  • Jacob Gordon
Gordon, Jacob (2006). "Submarine Lumberjacks Harvest Underwater Forests." Nov 30, 2006.
How to Compete with Offshore Low Labor Costs: Employ Highly Skilled Labor at 30 Cents per Hour
  • R Potter
Potter R. (2004) How to Compete with Offshore Low Labor Costs: Employ Highly Skilled Labor at 30 Cents per Hour. Robots 2004 Conference, June 9 and 10, Ypsilanti, Michigan.