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How Robotics is Revolutionizing Sustainability

Industries and companies have been trying to find ways to utilize robots to improve their processes, allowing businesses to be more efficient and profitable. Along with these benefits, it is becoming more and more evident that robotics helps improve sustainability efforts. Robots in today’s world are helping to fight climate change, improve recycling and make manufacturing more sustainable.


Robots Helping to Fight Climate Change & an Unhealthy Earth

As humans, it is our responsibility to take care of our planet and do whatever we can to make it a better place to live for future generations. Any small steps that we can take to conserve our environment and fight climate change need to be taken now before it is too late. Investing into the development of robots supporting our environment should be at the forefront of robotics efforts.

Below are just a few of the ways that robots are being used to help fight climate change.

Plant Trees

A company called SkyGrow has developed the Growbot that plants trees at a rate of 10 times faster than a human can. The process of planting these trees also costs about half of what it costs to plant a tree without the robot. The Growbot plants more mature trees instead of seeds so that they have a greater chance of surviving in their new location. Planting more trees on our planet is essential to helping reduce the carbon dioxide in the air. Having more trees will improve our air quality, by taking away the harmful carbon dioxide and turning it into healthy oxygen that we can breathe. SkyGrow plans on manufacturing 4,500 Growbots in order to help recover forests around the globe.

 Eat Water Pollution

The University of Bristol has been developing the “Row-bot” in order to improve their efforts of supporting climate change. The Row-bot swims around in the ocean and digests the pollution that is in the water and turns it into energy that can power the boat’s motor. Jonathan Rossiter, the host of a TED Talk for the Row-bot, suggested that this technology could help reduce the negative effects from tankers that flush their oil tanks into the ocean. He also noted that it could help reduce the impact of chemicals that are washed into rivers and eventually end up in the oceans. This technology is just the start of something that could be extremely influential and inspirational in the creation of other sustainable ideas.

 Clean Bodies of Water

We have all seen the horrific images that depict the danger marine life is put in when we, as a collective society, are not careful with our waste. One company, Urban Rivers, has made cleaning the waters their mission. They developed a trash robot that floats along the Chicago River in order to keep the waterway clean. They noticed the need for river cleanup when they installed floating wetlands and an urban garden and trash kept getting stuck in the plants. Instead of sending someone out each day to clean it, they decided to develop a robot that keeps the plants clean and prevents the animals from accidentally ingesting the harmful waste. This is just one way that robotics has helped the cleanliness of our water, and this idea could be further expanded to help on a larger scale.

Reduce Carbon Emissions

There are many ports and factories that emit a relatively large amount of carbon each day that is extremely harmful to our globe and climate change. The Port of Long Beach has been implementing automated robotic equipment to help reduce their carbon footprint. The new equipment is emission-free and reduces the port’s reliance on pollution-causing trucks and tools that are needed to be used at the port. Robotics helps reduce carbon emissions by giving users an alternative to carbon-emitting options. Robots can be customized to do almost any task, so we need to take a deeper look into how we can replace harmful equipment with automated, clean equipment.

Robots Make Recycling Easier/More Efficient

Consumers of recycled materials such as plastic, paper, metal and wood scrap have requirements and specifications that their recycled materials must possess in order to produce their goods in a consistent and safe manner. Many of these types of consumers only want one specific recycled material, so they want the collection of the specified material to be as source-separated as possible. Recycling companies to try to fulfill the volume needs of their customers but come up short when using only pinpoint targeted collection methods. This is where robotics comes in, in combination with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

The robots/machines learn to sort recycled products into categories depending on what material they are made of. The investments into this automated process were done in order to improve the quality and accuracy of shipped recycled materials and to decrease labor costs on the sorting line. Companies are turning to AI-enabled technologies in order to make improvements in lowering contamination rates in a more efficient manner. Some of the robots can make approximately 2,000 correct material picks per hour in comparison to humans making about 800 picks per hour.

At the Recon recycling plant in Austin, TX, their sorting robot has two arms with “smart grippers”. These arms are programmed to separate and pick plastics based on polymer, color, shape, and size, and it can pick 12 different kinds of materials. The type of arms that are used in these picking robots is called a pneumatic arm. The pneumatic system is what powers the robot’s arm and allows it to move. There are five parts to a pneumatic system; a compressor that makes the air, a reservoir that stores the air, valve(s) that control the air, a circuit that controls the valve(s) and then an actuator that uses the air to do something. The valves within the arm determine how the arm will move and in which direction. Switching the air on or off can cause the arm to make different movements such as raising or lowering, opening or closing the hand, and other movements. The arms are then programmed to determine what specific action the robot will perform.

The early adopters of this technology believe that even though they are the ones to be dealing with the new product implementation challenges, they know that the technology is here to stay. They feel like they are getting a head start and working to advance the technology in the robots as much as they can.

Robots Making Manufacturing Sustainable

In addition to increasing productivity, efficiency, and product quality in manufacturing, robots are now starting to help manufacturers become more sustainable by reducing waste and the amount of energy used. According to PwC, 59% of manufacturers are already using robotics to help them in their processes. One way that robots are improving the sustainable practices of manufacturers is by reducing waste because they can be extremely accurate and minimize the error. This helps the plant become more efficient in that everything that they produce is being used, and there is no waste that is discarded that would impact the environment.

One company that is using robots is Apple, and they use them in their recycling process of discarded iPhones. Their robot is tasked with picking out reusable pieces from old iPhones in order to use them for other products. This is sustainable because they are reducing waste, and they then don’t have to make an additional part for a new product. This task used to be done by shredders, which did not separate the components well, or by human hands, which is inefficient and makes workers susceptible to injury while dealing with sharp objects and chemicals.

Robots also aid in the energy-saving process because they do not require as much energy to operate as humans do. For example, humans need a factory with sufficient lighting and heat, whereas robots can work in a cold and dark factory. This drastically reduces the amount of energy used in the production process. It is estimated that for every 1C reduced in factory heat levels, there is a potential saving of up to 8%. In addition, up to 20% of energy savings can be reached if the plant turns off any unnecessary lighting.

Whether it’s reducing waste or reducing the amount of energy needed to run the plant, robots are undoubtedly helping manufacturers become greener.

Why We Need Sustainable Robots

We need more robots in our society in the various applications that were mentioned if we are going to take further steps to make our planet a better place to live right now and for future generations. They are vital in taking steps to reduce pollution and emissions of our manufacturing methods, and they are a crucial part to optimizing the manufacturing process to reduce the amount of energy consumed. They reduced our reliance on larger and more harmful vehicles and machines, and they help eliminate and clean-up waste in a variety of ways. The sustainable opportunities that involve robots are endless, and we need to start applying them in new situations in order to make our earth a better place to live.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!


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