Experimenting with robotics as a new urban infrastructure

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Urban Studies and Planning


It is becoming clear that robotics will be an integral part of the design, planning and operation of future cities and urban infrastructure. This is most evident in the development of driverless cars and drones, but there is potential for a much broader application of robotics in the delivery of goods and the management of people.

The use of robots in the public realm of cities has previously been constrained by technological limitations and concerns about human safety. However, that is changing rapidly as technology develops and governments recognize the potential social and environment benefits. Interest in urban robotics has certainly increased because of COVID-19 and the potential of robotics to provide essential goods and services with reduced human contact.

There could be significant public benefits from using robotics in the public realm but also social and ethical concerns about employment impacts and extended surveillance and social control, especially when robotics is combined with facial recognition and profiling. There is growing interest in urban robotics but so far the research on wider urban impacts has been limited. The aim of the proposed project is to fill that research gap by undertaking new research on the unfolding development of urban robotics in the UK and internationally.

The proposal is therefore for an internationally leading 30 month research project to help understand the potential impacts of urban robotics and provide the knowledge needed to inform public policy and academic research on urban robotics at this critical phase in its development. That includes supporting the development of urban robotic technology and services in the UK by linking social science and robotic engineering and understanding how innovation is shaped by opportunities for real world testing.

The research will include (i) a review of international urban robotic research and development; (ii) detailed analysis of the context for urban robotic innovation in the UK, (iii) case-studies of urban robotic experiments in the USA (San Francisco), Australia (Brisbane) and Japan (Yokohama); and (iv) a structured programme of policy support and awareness-raising. The research will lead to a landmark book and other publications that will help define and develop this new and important field of interdisciplinary study.


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