How will autonomous robots change our cities?

A Zhen delivery robot being demonstrated in Beijing. Image: Getty.

Ready or not, autonomous robots are leaving laboratories to be tested in real-world contexts. With more and more people living in cities, these technologies offer ways to cope with ageing populations and poorly maintained infrastructures, while promoting safer transport, productive manufacturing and secure energy supplies.

Urban “living labs” are one way scientists are trying to understand how autonomous robots – or Robotics & Autonomous Systems (RAS), to give them their full title – will affect our everyday lives. Autonomous robots are interconnected, interactive, cognitive and physical tools, which can perceive their environments, reason about events, make or revise plans and control their own actions. These technologies are designed to draw on big data and connect with the Internet of Things, to make our lives easier by increasing accuracy and efficiency.

But the everyday dynamics of cities are complex, which makes them far less predictable than the usual test zones. City leaders recognise that real world experimentation can support innovation, as well as attracting international investment. As a result, cities around the world are competing to become urban test beds. But as a new white paper by researchers from Sheffield University’s Urban Institute sets out, there are some big challenges when it comes to promoting RAS technologies and ensuring meaningful trials in cities.

Last mile logistics

Logistics companies are under pressure to meet growing customer expectations for quick delivery, while battling against traffic congestion. Companies aim to fill this gap with last mile delivery robots. Alibaba recently announced that their bot, the G Plus, will go from being road-tested at their headquarters in Hangzhou, eastern China, to commercial operations by the end of 2018.

In this trial, consumers download an app, place a grocery order and pinpoint where they want their goods to be delivered. Purchased items are placed into the driverless bot, which can carry several packages of different sizes. The robot has a built-in navigation system that relies on LIDAR – a technology that bounces light off nearby surfaces to create a 360-degree 3D map of the world around it. It drives autonomously, at speeds of up to 9.3 miles per hour, to the delivery location, where the customer enters a PIN code to retrieve their shopping.

Similar tests are taking place in Milton Keynes, in the UK, and the US city of San Francisco. But these trials have not been without error – some delivery bots have experienced navigation issues, such as getting stuck or crashing into obstacles including people, not to mention resistance from citizens and activists interested in protecting public space and pedestrian safety.

Self-repairing cities

Buried under city streets are millions of kilometres of pipe and cable networks that provide essential water, drainage and energy services. There is mounting pressure on cities and utility companies to maintain these ageing invisible infrastructures, while dealing with the challenges of growing urban populations, ecological turbulence and citizens’ expectations.

Autonomous robots can detect defects in infrastructure – such as cracks in the asphalt – and identify and eliminate their triggers, whether it’s a leaking pipe or physical overloading. For example, the University of Leeds, together with local councils and industry partners, are running a project on self-repairing cities to test a range of autonomous robotic technologies.

There are drones that can perform remote maintenance of street lights; swarms of flying vehicles for autonomous inspection and repair of potholes on motorways; and hybrid robots designed to inspect, repair, meter and report the condition of utility pipes.

These robots can go where human access is impossible (inside pipes) or undesirable (at height in the streetscape) and work systematically over long periods (during overnight closures). Such technologies could greatly extend the life of vital city infrastructures, reduce maintenance expenditure and lead to massive savings.

But questions remain about how city areas and residential populations are selected to benefit from these upgrades. Authorities will need to ensure that it’s not just the affluent and well-connected areas of cities that benefit from RAS trials.

Robots that care

Humanoid robots are touted as the solution to urban policing, customer service and social care challenges. Pepper – a white humanoid robot standing just over a metre tall – has already taken up employment meeting, greeting and advising customers in over 140 SoftBank mobile phone shops in Japan, and Nestle is planning on installing Pepper in 1,000 sales outlets.

According to his developers, “Pepper has been designed to identify your emotions and to select the behaviour best suited to the situation”. Programmed to meet the individual care needs of patients, social robots such as Pepper are now being trialled as personal companions, to augment the role of human carers.

In 2017, care homes in Southend, Essex adopted the companion robot to interact with the elderly, raising fears that they could replace staff. Yet it’s forecast that the UK will need up to 700,000 more care workers by 2030.

Robots may help alleviate this pressure on care homes and hospitals, by allowing people to live independently in their own homes for longer, providing entertainment via memory games, and enabling better connection with loved ones through smart appliances. But while robots may be able to facilitate patient monitoring and help with physical tasks, arguably there can be no replacement for human emotional connection and sensitivities.The Conversation

No longer simply fantasy or limited to niche applications, autonomous robots are slowly becoming a part of our everyday lives. While developers strive for RAS technologies to be neutral in design and to work seamlessly with the city and its citizens, there will always be challenges associated with this aspiration. That’s why urban “living labs” are crucial in demonstrating the opportunities and limits of autonomous robots, and ensuring that policies and standards are put in place to protect human rights, and guard against widening social inequalities.

Rachel Macrorie, Research Associate in Urban Automation and Robotics, University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.