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Environmental robotics can play an essential role in solving environmental challenges, either by gathering data or performing physical tasks.

From factories to hospitals, robots can be found nearly anywhere. Some robots are designed to perform simple tasks, while others — animal-like robots from Boston Dynamics, for example — can perform a breathtaking range of motions. Meanwhile, humans face more environmental challenges than have ever been presented to modern society. Acting now to protect our planet is crucial. 

Here we take a closer look at environmental robotics, a branch of robotics that attempts to solve ecological challenges, and some of the current applications that inspire us at Sphero.

What is Environmental Robotics?

Environmental robotics is a branch of science and engineering focused on the development of robots with an environmental function. By water, land, or air, environmental robots perform a range of vital tasks such as wildlife monitoring, air pollution measurement, and waste cleanup in order to improve the planet for human and animal life.

Examples of Environmental Robotics

Here we look at three distinct categories of environmental robotics: marine robotics, terrestrial robotics, and atmospheric robotics.

Marine Robotics

The oceans contain countless lifeforms, many of which we are yet to discover. Unfortunately, due to irresponsible environmental practices, the oceans also contain countless microplastics and other bits of human debris. Marine robotics can play a part in keeping the oceans clean, surveying marine wildlife, and predicting extreme weather events.

Predicting tsunamis with the Wave Glider

Liquid Robotics, a subsidiary of aerospace company Boeing, has developed an “energy-harvesting” ocean robot that uses the energy generated by wave motion as a form of propulsion.

The Wave Glider robot consists of two distinct sections connected by a cable. A surfboard-like structure floats on the surface while a finned body swims eight meters underwater. The robot can harvest kinetic and solar energy, helping it stay powered for months.

Because the Wave Glider can support various sensors and payloads, it has many potential uses. In 2018, the Japan Agency for Marine–Earth Science Technology deployed a Wave Glider to monitor the ocean for signs of tsunamis and send signals to a mainland base.

Getting a closer look at jellyfish with the RAD

Scientists study sea creatures to learn about their physiology, monitor their activities, and protect them from harm. After noticing that tools for catching soft-bodied organisms were not precise enough to avoid damaging the creatures, researchers at Harvard University developed a novel solution.

The Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron, or RAD, is an origami-inspired robot that uses five 3D printed “petals” to gently enclose a fragile live specimen — a squid or jellyfish, for example — without harming it. It works at depths of up to 11 kilometers. 

The researchers, led by first author Zhi Ern Teoh, plan to add onboard sensors and cameras that would allow the robot to gather information about specimens in situ without bringing them to the surface.

Cleaning up the ocean floor with SeaClear

Several companies and nonprofits have built robots capable of cleaning up litter from the surface of the ocean. These include the Jellyfishbot, which can clean up oil, and the solar-powered FRED.

Tested in 2022 and backed by the European Union, SeaClear differs from these robotics projects as it cleans up litter on the ocean floor.

The SeaClear system consists of a boat, a drone, and two underwater robots: one to map the area and another to collect debris and bring it to the surface. The cleanup robot, called Tortuga, grabs individual pieces of litter with a gripper and suction device.

Terrestrial Robotics

Within the field of environmental robotics, terrestrial robots are those that drive, walk, or operate over land to perform environmental tasks. They can serve a range of uses, particularly in areas like agriculture and forestry.

Keeping forests healthy with Natural Intelligence

Forests regulate the climate, promote biodiversity, and prevent soil erosion by blocking wind and rainfall. Humans have a responsibility to keep them healthy and thriving.

A research group coordinated by Italy’s University of Pisa is developing an autonomous four-legged robot that can scamper around forests (as well as environments like grassland, mountains, and dunes) to gather information about trees. Equipped with a 3D LiDAR scanner, the Natural Intelligence robot can capture 300,000 data points per second with a 360° field of view.

Most impressive about the robot is its ability to move over uneven, slippery, or hazardous terrain that a typical legged or wheeled robot would struggle to navigate. It does this by mimicking the walking and jumping motions of goats.

AI-driven weeding with FarmWise

Weeds are one of agriculture’s biggest obstacles. These undesirable plants steal precious sunlight, water, and nutrients from crops, hindering overall productivity. Worse still, weeding can be a slow and laborious process.

Luckily for farmers, robots can help with weeding management. California company FarmWise has developed a futuristic tractor that uses machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to differentiate crops from weeds before uprooting the latter with mechanical blades. Although the robot requires a human operator to “drive” it (albeit remotely, using a tablet), the plant identification and weeding are fully automated.

Although this technology is sold commercially, it could also be deployed by governments or nonprofits during periods of low national productivity or famine.

Collecting DNA from the tallest tree branches

Collecting samples of environmental DNA (eDNA) — DNA shed by organisms via hair, saliva, skin, and waste — helps scientists monitor biodiversity. However, collecting samples from areas like high tree branches can take a long time.

Scientists from ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research have developed an eDNA-Collecting Drone that can gently land on tree branches and gather eDNA using sticky strips of material. The autonomous drone has a force-sensing cage to determine if a branch is sturdy enough to land on.

Gathering samples allows scientists to monitor the presence of organisms, helping them understand if a species is becoming endangered.

Atmospheric Robotics

Drones and other flying robots are valuable tools for environmental monitoring in the Earth’s atmosphere. These robots can collect air samples, monitor weather events, and take aerial photographs at high altitudes.

Monitoring air quality with Botlink

Air pollution poses long-term and immediate health risks to humans and animals. It also, of course, contributes to global warming and negatively impacts crop yields.

Drone management and data processing specialist Botlink has developed an air quality monitoring drone capable of mapping pollution gasses and particulates, measuring levels of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone.

The drone can fly for up to 30 minutes and transmit results immediately via a wireless internet connection.

Atmospheric monitoring with the Black Swift S2

Aerospace company Black Swift Technology originally developed drones for the United States Air Force, helping pilots navigate adverse winds. But the technology also has environmental applications in areas like soil moisture mapping and atmospheric monitoring.

The Black Swift S2 drone was developed to carry scientific payloads such as sensors for monitoring pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind, giving it a wide range of applications. For example, it can be deployed to assess the atmospheric effects of volcano plumes or wildfire smoke.

How Environmental Robotics Can Help Our Planet

Environmental robotics can play an essential role in solving environmental challenges, either by gathering data or performing physical tasks.

For the most part, environmental robots are used to gather information about the environment via activities like air quality measurement, photography, and sample collection. This information can then be used by researchers to inform overall strategies for tackling problems like climate change, soil erosion, and animal extinction.

On the other hand, some environmental robots are capable of carrying out the strategy themselves. For example, waste cleanup robots and agricultural robots play a direct role in combating environmental issues.

Sphero provides several robot kits for students, including RVR+ and best-selling BOLT, both of which can be programmed to perform a range of tasks. Browse our complete range of Coding Robots.

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