Technology is transforming societies worldwide. A major innovation is the emergence of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS), which have the potential to revolutionize cities for both people and nature. Nonetheless, the opportunities and challenges associated with RAS for urban ecosystems have yet to be considered systematically. Here, we report the findings of an online horizon scan involving 170 expert participants from 35 countries. We conclude that RAS are likely to transform land use, transport systems and human–nature interactions. The prioritized opportunities were primarily centred on the deployment of RAS for the monitoring and management of biodiversity and ecosystems. Fewer challenges were prioritized. Those that were emphasized concerns surrounding waste from unrecovered RAS, and the quality and interpretation of RAS-collected data. Although the future impacts of RAS for urban ecosystems are difficult to predict, examining potentially important developments early is essential if we are to avoid detrimental consequences but fully realize the benefits.
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We are grateful to all of the participants who took part in this study, and to J. Bentley for preparing the figures. This work was funded by the UK government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (grant EP/N010523/1: ‘Balancing the Impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural Systems using Robots’). Z.G.D. was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (consolidator grant no. 726104).
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