Why green tech investors should care about robotics

Sustainability is the most important technological problem we face today and for the foreseeable future. We need to use resources more intelligently and to be successful, our technology needs to become intelligent itself. Robotics is the study of giving the ability to sense the environment, make intelligent decisions and take action to machines and; a large part of green technology and robotics are the same technology.

Heating and air conditioning account for as much as a third of total energy consumption but much of the consumption is unnecessary. Nest, a Silicon Valley startup, has created an intelligent thermostat which simultaneously saves energy and improves comfort levels. Through user input and an occupancy sensor, it learns to anticipate desired temperatures and optimizes energy use, even shutting off heating and cooling automatically when no one is present. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and sensing are the enabling technologies for Nest and the robotic connections are evident in their core team: Yoky Matsuoka, the VP of technology, won a MacArthur Genius Award for her work on robotics and co-founder Matt Rogers, received his education at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the premier robotics institutions in the nation.

NASA Ames Sustainability Base, a LEED platinum building, demonstrates how far robotic technology can be taken today. Hundreds of infrared sensors, multiple reservoirs, and actuators to automatically open and close windows allow the building to manage it’s environment using almost no outside power. Googling climate control and energy will immediately return hundreds of recent patent filings and papers applying intelligence to reduce consumption illustrating the potential for innovation.

Food production and transportation are also making great improvements through robotic technology. As Michael Pollan has written, growing even a small amount of your own food is one of the biggest sustainability improvements an individual can make. MIT broke the ground with their internet and robotically tended garden in 2008. Window Farms use automation technology to make Urban farming possible even in NY apartments. Founder Britta Riley presented the system and emphasized the importance of the hacker movement in her TED talk on R&D-I-Y (“research and develop it yourself”). Most recently, Harvest Automation debuted their nursery tending robots as covered by public radio.

Transportation contributes another significant fraction of our energy consumption from fuel to the energy spent building and maintaining roads and parking space. Electric cars are drawing on motor and control technology developed largely for the industrial robotics industry. From the DARPA challenges to Google’s autonomous cars, autonomous robotic technology is on the horizon and promises to make our cars safer and more efficient. Robotics is also opening the automotive space to small companies. One of Robot Garden’s first members, Saurabh Palan, is working on aftermarket technology for driver assistance. Lit Motors and Twill Tech are both developing revolutionary new vehicles which promise the safety and convenience of cars with the space and fuel efficiency of motorcycles by incorporating robotics. Twill Tech has gone so far as to prototype their vehicle as an autonomous robot before testing with occupants.

Most of these applications are not considered robotic by their users or even creators. However, robotics has inspired and or enabled these and many more green innovations.