This is a question I’m commonly asked. Indeed, there’s nothing directly related to robotics in the climate solution catalog on Project Drawdown, usually referred to as the most comprehensive list of existing climate solutions within the climate community. These solutions range across a wide swath of sectors: renewable energy sources, sustainable building design and retrofit, more efficient and cleaner means of transportation, sustainable agriculture practices, new manufacturing practices and carbon sequestration using plants, land or oceans.
These solutions are great on paper, but simply having solutions isn’t sufficient - we need to implement and scale them up quickly in order to meet the 1.5 C (2.7F) goal set by the Paris Agreement. This is where robotics comes in. Scaling up existing solutions is what robotics is best at.
At Nirva Labs, we’re on a mission to look for and build climate robotics applications that will actually make an impact. As a start, we’ve looked into many companies and research projects in this space and broadly categorize them based on first principles. We’d like to share our observations and learnings here and seek feedback and new ideas from you.
Robots help deploy climate solutions faster by enhancing efficiency.
Repurposing EV Batteries
Electric vehicle (EV) batteries are usually retired when they lose 20% of their storage capacity, yet the remaining 80% can still be used for lower frequency energy storage like building electricity storage. However, repurposing batteries is an exacting and lengthy process - human operators must discharge them and break them down manually. Robots can disassemble EV batteries 10x faster than humans because they can simply operate faster than humans and can work in more demanding work environments. They can swiftly remove bolts and other housing regardless of any remaining charge. In the time it takes to disassemble 12 battery stacks by hand, the automated system can realistically handle 100 or more. Aside from being fast, robots reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals found inside the batteries and high power levels that are approaching the 900-volt level in some newer vehicles. The feasibility of the technology has been shown in a recent Department of Energy project, and several companies like Posh Robotics (YC W22) are working to commercialize it.
Farming Kelp to Capture Carbon
We often think of climate solutions as planting trees to capture carbon dioxide from the air, but we forget the ocean has served as a massive carbon sink buffering many of the effects of rising carbon levels. Companies like Running Tide, Pull To Refresh and Phykos are deploying automated systems for growing microalgae and sinking them to the bottom of the ocean. Taken outdoors, robots significantly speed up microalgae farming for ecosystem restoration and carbon sinking. This process can store the carbon in the ocean for thousands of years and the automated systems can grow more of them in the limited time we have.
Restoring Coral Reefs
Reefs have huge hidden values - they provide a natural barrier to coastal cities from storm surges and house a quarter of all marine biodiversity. Due to ocean acidification and warming temperatures, we are at risk of losing these jewels of the ocean if we don’t intervene. Protecting and restoring reefs is an arduous process especially for humans: obviously, it’s hard for us to work underwater! The process, called coral reseeding, involves harvesting wild coral spawn from mass spawning events, rearing them to the larval stage and releasing the larvae onto degraded reefs. The amount of human involvement and equipment makes it hard to scale. Robots have stepped in as a reasonable substitute. LarvalBot, an autonomous underwater vehicle system developed by Professor Matthew Dunbabin at Queensland University of Technology, automatically conducts all steps of coral reseeding. The robot can cover 21.8 times more area coverage compared to manual methods and is already put to work in Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and the Maldives.
Reduce Barrier to Entry
A lot of climate solutions already exist, but the barrier to entry, whether it be time, money or labor, is too high, preventing wide usage. Robotics can tear down this barrier.
In-field Biochar Production
Biochar is a charcoal soil amendment rich in carbon, traditionally produced by burying and burning biomass wastes, a process called pyrolysis. Biochar retains most of the carbon present in biomass feedstock and buries it for centuries in the soil, which makes it a perfect means of sinking carbon. Pyrolysis is traditionally done at a centralized plant in or at the edge of a field or forestry operation. Farmers need to collect feedstock, transport it to the machine, load it, and move the biochar back out to a farm. Because biomass feedstock is bulky and expensive to transport, 50% of the cost of the pyrolysis product is transportation, largely discouraging farm owners from adopting this method. Climate Robotics solves this problem with a modular system that collects biomass refuse, pyrolyzes it, and returns it to the field directly while being towed by an agricultural tractor. This eliminates the time and cost needed for the transportation and makes it much easier for farmers to adopt this method and sink more carbon into the soil.
There are jobs that are simply hard to fill, some of which have major environmental impact. Trash recycling is a great example of one of them. Picking out trash repetitively every day is not a desirable job (occasionally one done by prison inmates), and materials recovery facilities are desperate for more people to sort out the recyclables. Luckily, robots are the best at repetitive motions in a controlled environment - companies like AMP robotics and Glacier are already deploying robots for plastics and metal recycling. By deploying robots on their lines, facilities are seeing higher yields and throughput without having to worry about personnel turnover.
Solar Farm Construction
Utility-scale solar photovoltaics are at the top of Project Drawdown’s climate solutions in terms of carbon reduction. In many parts of the world, solar power is competitive or less costly than conventional power generation. Demand has skyrocketed for clean energy (20% of all the solar that exists in the US was installed last year), but today’s construction companies can’t keep up due to limited labor resources. Startups like Charge Robotics and power companies like AES are working on robots that automate the most labor-intensive parts of solar construction, such as heavy lifting, placing and attachment of solar modules.
Robots can expand humans’ reach to environments that are inaccessible or are simply dangerous to work in. This unlocks many climate solutions that formerly were hard to scale or even initiate.
Managing Forest Fires
Having a birds-eye view of the fire pattern and spread is crucial for informed decisions to contain forest fires on the spot. However, traditional helicopters and other manned aircraft are unable to fly as low and slow and for as long a period of time as drones. Drones have higher spatiotemporal resolution and can fly in smoke and at night, both of which are dangerous flying conditions for manned crafts. Firefighters have been using drones for identifying hot spots, locating firebreak breaches, and delivering water to the affected site. They free humans from dangerous flying to focus on making decisions to contain the fires. Drones are also used for conducting and monitoring controlled forest burns at a distance. IGNIS, an unmanned aerial system developed by Drone Amplified, removes personnel from risk and can cover 1600 acres per day.
Retrofitting Building Insulation
Going from outdoors to indoors, you might be surprised that there are climate solutions bottlenecked by inaccessible work environments within houses. Buildings contribute to about one third of carbon emissions in the US. EPA estimates that homeowners can save an average of 15% on heating and cooling costs by air sealing their homes and adding insulation in attics and floors. This being said, retrofitting an attic or floor is no easy task. Crawling into an attic to make renovations is hard enough. Redoing an existing floor is nearly impossible without lifting up everything in the house. This is where robotics comes in. Robo-Attic and the Aardvark are two example projects where robots are used in attics for inspection and air sealing. Q-bot from the UK has developed a robot that can apply underfloor insulation. Both applications have opened up huge opportunities for building retrofitting and energy saving.
Wind Turbine Blade Inspection
Wind turbines are the quintessential symbol of green energy. They are also dangerous and expensive to maintain. Inspecting wind turbine blades involves being hung 500ft above the ground. In a list compiled by Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, there were 167 wind turbine accidents per year from 2013-17. In light of that, companies like Unleash have developed drones for blade inspection. Aerones has robots for both wind turbine blade inspection and simple repair, while being 6x faster than humans and 40% more cost efficient.
Alternative Agricultural Practices
Robotics unleashes agriculture practices that are better for the environment but previously infeasible. Think of your typical garden potted plant baby that you nurture and care for. Each plant gets the attention it deserves: the right amount of water, and extra care to shield it against invading bugs. Now imagine this at scale on a farm. Robotics enables precise farming - removing weeds and irrigating on a per-plant basis, thus reducing the need for widespread usage of herbicide and water wastage as runoff. Companies like Blue River Technologies, FarmWise and Aigen are all focused on this trend with great results. Another example is fully automated greenhouse farming pioneered by companies like Plenty and Iron Ox. By controlling all aspects of a crop’s growth, they can grow crops at a much higher density while saving water resources. Growing in compact greenhouses also frees farmlands from the damage of monocultures or single species farming and allows these lands to recover.
Robotics plays a significant role in data collection. Because robots can reach places inaccessible to humans, they bring us better data that will help us learn more about the environment and make informed decisions.
Many important climate solutions, like deforestation monitoring and forest fire prevention, require regular data collection under forest canopies. This data allows foresters to have a clear image (figuratively and literally) of the forest’s health to make informed and urgent decisions. This data was previously inaccessible using traditional data collection methods via satellite and plane views because the tree canopy itself blocks sightlines down to the forest floor. Treeswift, a startup from the University of Pennsylvania, solves this by deploying autonomous drones to collect data in forests. The drones can move through the trees swiftly like a bird and collect data about a world previously unknown to us. Their product is not only 10 times faster at collecting forestry data compared to traditional methods, but also their data is more accurate and helps foresters make better decisions.
Sub-ice Data Collection
Beneath the frozen and seemingly lifeless ice shelves on Earth lie a flurry of activities such as accretion, melting, and circulation. These processes mediate the interaction between the ocean and ice and are an important element of Earth’s climate system. In our warming world, however, these processes destabilize ice shelves and ice sheets. Despite the critical role of these processes, they are very challenging to observe given the harsh glacial environment. To solve this, researchers from Georgia Tech have developed Icefin, an autonomous underwater vehicle for long-range, deep-water, under-ice data collection. It allows researchers to explore and collect data from previously inaccessible regions that are critical to our understanding of these complex systems.
Conclusion - Innovations Inspired by First Principles
Robots can help us fight against climate change faster by enhancing efficiency, reducing the barrier to entry, and alleviating labor shortages. They enable us to deploy climate solutions in hostile environments, develop alternative agriculture practices and collect better data.
Of course, this is not a comprehensive survey of all existing climate robotics solutions out there, but only a start. Stepping back and taking a birds-eye view of the existing solutions makes us realize that the first principles behind them are transferable across problem spaces. We at Nirva Labs will continue to point out those connections and brainstorm new robotics solutions in other problem spaces. Stay in touch by subscribing to our newsletter!
Next Steps for You
First and foremost, whatever your background, we’d like your feedback. Do you think any of the applications above make sense or not, from a technical, environmental or business standpoint? Is robotics the right solution for those problems, or is there something much better and more impactful? Are there important areas or companies we are missing? We’d like to hear from you!
If you are a roboticist interested in building something impactful, we hope this survey article can inspire new ideas from you. You know your robots the best. How can they help with climate in any of the categories mentioned above? What will be the pros and cons of those solutions?
If you are a domain expert in climate solutions, we hope this survey article has shown you that a robotics solution is not as far off as it seems. Are you frustrated that existing solutions are slow or expensive because of low efficiency, transportation or labor shortage? Can robotics help with that, just as how it helps the problems above?
Thanks Robert Eng, Cian Costello, Aliris Tang and Weiyu Du for valuable discussions and editing suggestions!