. It’s a neat summary of a utopian paradigm, a form of grass-roots, do-it-yourself urban maintenance. , leaking water mains or broken streetlights simply by taking a photograph and uploading it. Hundreds of local authorities, especially in the US, support the idea – many are using dedicated apps to make it as easy as possible. See a problem, click a button and, once the machinery of municipal intervention clicks into gear, it’s fixed.
However, in most cases a lack of work crews, insufficient public funds, sclerotic bureaucracy and long waiting lists for jobs mean that it works better in principle than practice. But the era of see, click, fix might soon be one-upped.
at the University of Leeds, UK, envisions a city where everyday maintenance issues will not only be reported by mobile robotic sensors roaming the metropolis, but one where the repairs themselves will be carried out by robots. In what Purnell and colleagues call “self-repairing cities”, a robot could get to work on a problem as soon as it is reported.
, a colleague of Purnell’s also at the University of Leeds, shares the enthusiasm. He thinks on-site robots carrying out precision repairs will avoid the need for disruptive construction jobs in the heart of our cities.
Large construction vehicles would be gone, along with scaffolding-clad facades or the blinding lights of late-night repair jobs. Purnell’s robots would be physically rooted within the very infrastructures they fix. Self-healing street lights or road surfaces are just the beginning of what could eventually be rolled out across a city. For every utility, a mechanical guardian: robots tending buried water mains; robots watching over electricity cables; even.
These self-guided machines would be the white blood cells of the urban environment: a city-scale immune system made entirely from remote-controlled or fully autonomous robotic repair teams.
Perch and repair
The team anticipates different types of robot with specific roles. Some would perch like birds on structures such as street lights, waiting to swoop down and patch them up. Others would be released and forgotten about, disappearing into our urban infrastructure like. They will operate indefinitely, performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting tasks from places like utility pipes. And some would be sent out on dedicated diagnostic missions, assessing the damage to a particular road surface, for example.
We could easily add other types of robot – such as the. Flying robots could be used to secure dangling objects, knocked loose by earthquakes or storms, essentially stitching them back on to the structures from which they have become detached. Or they could even knit together temporary, small-scale emergency suspension bridges for people stranded by floods.
It will be some time before we share our cities with such devices, however – not least because of cybersecurity concerns. Purnell and colleagues are keen to avoid a scenario where maliciously hacked “perch and repair” robots swoop down on the heads of an unsuspecting populace like a robot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Still, faced with accelerating urbanisation and a growing risk of floods, wildfires, droughts, superstorms and rising sea levels, the goal of creating so-called resilient infrastructure is at the top of many designers’ wish lists.
As well as maintenance bots, this resilience will come in many forms, including the way cities are laid out and managed. But it could also be built into structures themselves.can use calcite-excreting bacteria to patch its own cracks caused by weathering or earthquakes, for example.
Other materials with self-healing properties are being developed by the military and the. There are polymers that could repair hairline cracks in aircraft wings or . NASA is looking at . All of these have obvious implications for architectural construction.
Cities made from such materials could begin to stitch themselves back together after natural disasters. There may be scars, but damaged structures could shore themselves up enough to welcome back their inhabitants – at least temporarily.
The ultimate promise is a metropolis that we could leave to take care of itself. The urban world could thus be treated like an ecosystem, one tended by vigilant robots and constructed from hand-me-down self-healing materials from the likes of NASA. In such cities our role would then be comparable to that of a high-tech gardener, occasionally pruning back or replacing systems that would otherwise thrive on their own.
Image credits (from top): Monika Kanokova/EyeEm/getty; Robert Stainforth/Alamy Stock Photo; Architecture and Digital Fabrication Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control ETH Zurich; Morgan Hill/Alamy Stock Photo
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