How robots could help fix the UK’s failing infrastructure
Chris Middleton explains why critical infrastructure maintenance could be a hotspot for robotics. But what will the societal impacts be, and what can we do about them?
Anyone who’s been stuck in a gridlock knows that maintaining our essential infrastructure can disrupt daily life for millions of people. Repairing tarmac, rail networks, gas or water mains, cables, sewers, street lights… the list goes on at ground level or beneath it. Meanwhile, fixing bridges, towers, and wind turbines presents its own set of challenges.
Disruptions can be long-lasting, expensive and frustrating. More, they often reveal how inefficient our systems are. The economic impact of this can be massive, and yet our infrastructure demands continuous inspection, repair, and renewal to prevent a worse type of disruption: critical failure.
Fixing these problems could be a transformative application of robotics, according to a new white paper from UK-RAS, the umbrella organisation for British robotics research. The white paper, Robotic and Autonomous Systems for Resilient Infrastructure, says: “Our vision is of a society where infrastructure engineering is undertaken with zero disruption to human activity and zero environmental impact.”
So the first question is why these problems occur in the first place.
Why things fail
Disruptions are rarely caused by the maintenance work itself, but by creating the safe access mechanisms for human beings to carry it out. Workers have to dig trenches, erect scaffolding, build gantries, or close roads and rail lines before repairs can take place. Building these systems often takes weeks for a few days’ – eventual – work.
Robots could help by stripping away these parts of the process, claims UK-RAS. “Robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) can operate in dangerous and challenging locations, such as inside underground pipes, or at height underneath bridges, or on live roads, to perform inspection, repair, maintenance, and removal tasks.”
The white paper adds that robots could positively disrupt the engineering sector by: “Improving the speed, quality and timeliness of infrastructure engineering, while reducing direct costs, economic impacts, material waste, energy usage, environmental damage, and risk to human operators.”
The cost element alone is massive. In the UK, for example, the government has committed to spending £500 billion by 2020-21 on traditional infrastructure projects. Central investment in our national networks is critical to supporting growth and creating jobs, raising productivity, driving efficiency, and boosting international competitiveness. In each of these areas, RAS can play a significant role, claims the white paper.
The assets angle
An attractive picture, but it isn’t complete. My separate report from CERN reveals the missing piece of the puzzle: smart asset management, and the embedding of intelligence into the infrastructure itself. The CERN campus is effectively a smart city, and it has millions of physical assets. Some are vast or exist in environments that are hazardous to humans, while others are minute or inaccessible – a single bolt hidden somewhere in the 27km loop of the Large Hadron Collider. Without smart asset management, big science experiments would need to be shut down in order to locate and fix tiny problems. Similar challenges apply in any town or city.
So the solution is for the component itself to tell you where it is, what it does, what it connects to, and when it needs fixing – and for its maintenance or obsolescence to be planned for in advance. Once on the system, much of this can be automated. Meanwhile, the data gathered from each asset is invaluable in environmental and sustainability terms.
The white paper concurs: “The convergence of RAS with the ability to embed intelligence into assets, extract intelligence from big data, and the development of new manufacturing materials and processes has created a platform to overcome the complex engineering challenges associated with installing and maintaining infrastructure networks.”
The opportunities are vast, it suggests: “The companies that successfully deploy and exploit RAS will be at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution. In addition to providing an unparalleled customer experience, it is likely that these firms will unlock value chains that generate completely new economic activities.”
Bold claims. But is anyone doing it for real?
The reality vs. the challenge
Patches of innovation are certainly emerging. In the UK, for example, there are long-term plans for robots to replace diggers in Leeds and turn it into the world’s first self-repairing city. Meanwhile, Oxfordshire County Council is using AI to provide early warnings of travel problems in the region, so that resources can be mobilised to deal with them. It finds that predictive analytics is better at spotting these problems than real-time sensor data.
But in the UK, an obstacle to widespread robot adoption – including driverless vehicles and drones – is legislative. The UK is small and densely populated, its skies and roads are crowded, and its aviation sector is (understandably) cautious. In the bigger skies of the US, soft-touch regulation is clearing the way for maintenance drones and other RAS technologies.
And what about the employment impacts? The UK’s engineering workers would resist mass automation and unemployment – challenges that exist in every part of the economy, where human beings risk being swept aside by the machines.
Job losses or new careers?
Currently, robotics is more closely associated with job losses than job creation, and there is ample evidence of its negative impacts. For example: out of more than 2.5 million jobs in UK real estate and construction, 34 per cent are at high risk from automation, according to Deloitte, and 16 per cent are at medium risk. That’s half the workforce of an entire industry.
However, UK-RAS contrasts this with the US automotive industry. Between 2010 and 2015, car makers installed more than 60,000 industrial robots and the number of human workers rose by 230,000. This runs counter to the perception that automation equals mass unemployment. (See my separate report, The China Syndrome, for more on this.)
But in engineering and infrastructure maintenance, would these new jobs be in menial support roles, or in something better? The white paper says: “Infrastructure creation and operation has traditionally provided work for many of the lower skilled in society. Trends towards robotics will demand more high-level skills from the ever-reducing number of people employed in the industry.
“A trend towards increased use of robotics will make those vital industries more attractive to the tech-savvy youth of today, providing the technological stimulus to attract the next generation of engineers and new startup companies.”
So the report is claiming that robotics will strip away low-skilled jobs and replace them with skilled, high-tech opportunities – in the engineering sector, at least. That deepens social inequality, with automation and low-wage roles locked in a fatal embrace.
Improving skills and education, then, must be a priority for any country that goes down this road. But this is a big challenge for some. According to the Global Innovation Index 2017 – an annual report that surveys 127 countries’ ability to take new ideas to market – the UK may have some of the world’s best universities, but it is only 39th in terms of per capita expenditure on secondary education as a percentage of GDP.
Its class sizes are too large, and too few students go up to university: the UK is just 46th in tertiary enrolment. Other research has shown that undergraduates from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop out of university. Factor in these elements, and it seems inevitable that RAS technologies will deepen social inequality in the short to medium term, while an underfunded education system and rising student debts will prevent many people from crossing an economic chasm.
Crossing the chasm
The UK-RAS white paper says that robotic innovation should “free up our workforce” to: “Tackle the more complex, creative, and challenging issues facing our ageing infrastructure. The industry is desperately short of workers, particularly at higher skill levels. Reducing the unskilled workload will give the industry the opportunity to retrain existing workers rather than recruit from abroad.” And post Brexit, of course, the UK may have no choice.
But elsewhere in the economy, these divisions are less clear. In some sectors – banking, finance, media, legal services, publishing, and healthcare, for example – automation, AI, and robotics are replacing professional roles, at least at entry level.
Robots are knocking out the first rungs of what was once seen as the middle-class career ladder, making it harder for newly qualified people to succeed.
Together, these issues demand a new national strategy; one that considers robotics, automation, education, skills, economic deprivation, and taxation as an interlinked set of challenges.
Most Brits would tell you that the UK is uniquely susceptible to infrastructure problems and inefficiency: rail engineering works that last for years; coned-off motorway lanes with no workers in sight; months of scaffolding for a week’s exterior decorating, and so on. It’s part of the story that we tell ourselves about the state of the nation.
UK-RAS, meanwhile, says that the UK is well placed to capitalise on new high-tech opportunities for the same reasons, along with the density of its national infrastructure and its deep pool of engineering talent.
Either way, these changes are coming. So let’s hope that the government increases its central investment in both RAS technologies and education, so the country can be in the locomotive of new industrial opportunities, creating new jobs and new economic growth. The alternative? Sitting at the back of the train, grumbling about delays. Place your bets, please!
• A version of this article was first published on diginomica.
• For more articles on robotics, AI, and automation, go to the Robotics Expert page.
© Chris Middleton 2017.