Are robotic devices environmentally friendly?
Answered by Jacob Silverman and Discovery Channel
  • Jacob Silverman

    Jacob Silverman

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The environmental impact of robots depends on how they're made, what they're made out of and how they're used. Robots, computers and other high-tech devices often require minerals that are often mined in ways that cause serious environmental damage, particularly in countries with lax business and environmental regulations. In recent years, the issue of so-called "conflict minerals" has also come to the fore. Like conflict diamonds, conflict minerals are extracted in war-torn countries -- usually under horrid working conditions -- and sold by governments or rebel groups to finance their wars, which in turn are enormously destructive to a country's population and environment. Some technology companies, such as Apple, have publicly touted their use of "conflict-free minerals," and a province in the Congo has even promoted itself as providing such minerals, but it can be difficult to trace minerals found in robots or computers to the mine that produced them.

    But robots also have many uses that are environmentally friendly. In April 2011, after the disastrous earthquake in northern Japan, workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant began using robots to explore the facility and measure radiation levels [source: BBC News]. They also employed modified Bobcat digging machines that could be operated by -- believe it or not -- an Xbox 360 controller attached to a laptop computer. Meanwhile, Honeywell T-Hawk drones were also used to fly above the reactor site and survey the area. In the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a company called iRobot deployed an underwater robot called Seaglider, which was used to monitor the presence of oil at depths of up to 1,000 meters [source: LaMonica].

    Robots can also be used to track areas undergoing gradual or less visible changes. For example, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), an ambitious project costing $500 million and currently under construction, will deploy sensors and automated robots in ecosystems throughout the world in order to track anything from changes in soil composition, to shifting animal migrations, to the intrusion of new pollutants [sources: Science Daily, NEON].

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  2. They can be! Even robot "predators" like the Slugbot -- a robot that rids gardens of harmful pests, turning them into fuel. The SlugBot captures 600 slugs an hour and then dumps them into a fermentation chamber, where bacteria convert them into fuel. Also environmentally friendly is the EcoBot II, which rids gardens of flies by using a foul odor to attract them.

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