Smart Cities Robotic Challenge puts machines to everyday tests of riding elevators and delivering food

More cities have adopted drones, but researchers are finding ways for robots to take on tedious and dangerous tasks as well.

delivery robot

A food delivery robot from a grocery store crosses a street in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, DC, on April 9, 2020 on its way for a delivery.

Image: Getty Images/Nicholas Kamm/AFP

Dancing robots are entertaining but there are more practical tasks that these dexterous and intelligent machines can take on. A competition this fall in Bologna, Italy, will test skills such as interacting with humans, delivering food and responding to emergencies.

As part of the European Robotics League, SciRoc is hosting the ERL Smart Cities Robotics Challenge. The 2021 challenge is scheduled for Sept. 6-11. Organizers say the competition will be socially distanced and that they have made plans to cope with additional travel restrictions.

Ten teams from five countries competed in the first ERL Smart Cities Robotics Challenge in 2019. The competition was held in a shopping center in Milton Keynes, U.K., where robots delivered coffee shop orders, responded to an emergency and interacted with humans by navigating from one floor to another via elevator.

Diego Varela, COO at Kiwibot, predicts that humans' and robots' coexistence will be essential for the future of smarter cities. Varela said he sees robots taking over mundane and repetitive tasks.

"Clearly, progress and technological advancement always has friction and detractors, but any tool that increases human capacity will eventually be accepted," he said.

Alison Brooks, IDC research vice president for worldwide public safety, said the pandemic illustrated how robots and drones could take on tasks that are risky for humans. This includes verifying documentation and inspecting city infrastructure, such as water systems. 

"We are seeing multipurpose applications for both robots and drones," Brooks said.

SEE: How robots can help modernize the restaurant industry (TechRepublic)

Kiwibot works with cities, agencies and businesses to deliver food and other goods. Varela said that companies could increase the amount of deliveries completed if robots supported the last mile. 

"Customers take around seven minutes to get to the door to pick up an order, which represents 21 minutes an hour," he said. "Considering that a delivery partner does three deliveries an hour tops, a Kiwibot could help a delivery partner make 33% more money per hour."

Brooks said that she has seen significant adoption of drones among municipalities but that it's still early days for robots and smart city projects.

"Cities are starting to get their minds around where it might be appropriate and where it might be inappropriate," she said.

In the research paper "Robot-City Interaction: Mapping the Research Landscape—A Survey of the Interactions Between Robots and Modern Cities," the authors define robots as machines that could "live in, engage with and benefit from a city ecosystem." This includes agents with sensing capabilities and some levels of autonomy. The researchers identified six RCI areas of growth for cities:

  1. Citizen assistance
  2. Public space engagement
  3. Mobility in urban dynamic environments 
  4. Autonomous urban transportation
  5. Urban security
  6. Urban maintenance

It's easy to understand how robots and drones can be force multipliers for police officers and maintenance workers, but cities should think ahead to avoid a techlash, Brooks said.

"Cities have to have policies in place around acceptable use that precedes the procurement of the technology," she said. "Otherwise people are super leery about deploying things they don't understand."

Brooks listed the Chula Vista Police Department as a good example to follow for setting acceptable use policy before deploying drones. The department started testing the technology and meeting with community groups three years before launching a first responder program that uses drones to assess a situation before officers arrive.

"There is tightly scripted language around misuse of the technology, which is equally important given the historical misapplication of these technologies that we need to avoid now," she said.

Adopting a standard data specification

Data transparency is another important part of the policy component of deploying robots and drones, particularly when it comes to mobility. When autonomous vehicles are sharing the roads with humans and other vehicles, city managers need to be able to monitor and track these vehicles. A new way of sharing information and implementing safety policies has emerged in the form of the Mobility Data Specification. 

According to the Open Mobility Foundation, the Mobility Data Specification helps city leaders understand how public streets are used and provides the tools to improve that experience overall in these ways:

  • Tracking real-time and historic data for better planning and program management
  • Providing digital management tools to reduce operating costs and staff time spent monitoring mobility programs and service providers
  • Allowing real-time policy changes to be made to adapt to events and emergencies
  • Supporting policies that allow dynamic pricing, equitable access and safety initiatives 

Kiwibot's machines share data with cities and other partners via Mobility Data Specification. This framework allows cities to respond to safety issues on the right of way and even geofence a robot's territory. Varela said using the data standard has helped Kiwibot establish responsible and open relationships with cities.

"Kiwibot's data effort is a landmark as the company became the first robot, delivery and robot delivery company to comply with an international standard that will align city and private incentives," Varela said.

MDS is a set of APIs that are protocols that allow data to flow securely between cities and providers. The three primary APIs allow cities and providers to communicate in these ways: 


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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...