As practical autonomous systems – self-driving cars, delivery drones and factory robots – become widespread, the technology they replace faces the scrapheap, but could a new grey economy arise from people building new robotic systems from landfill leftovers? We get the thoughts of robot experts, domestic tinkerers and a cyberpunk pioneer

In the early 1980s, something happened to the science fiction genre. Gone were the matching uniforms and shiny spaceships; in their place alienated hackers sought solace from untrustworthy governments and crumbling economies in computer-generated environments. This all took place on a near-future Earth where anyone not a shill to a corrupt corporation had to scratch a living, including enterprising engineers who set up robot chop-shops to re-use discarded tech.

This subgenre became known as cyberpunk, and three decades on not only does the social setting sound familiar, but technology has also caught up with its prescient fictional counterpart. With cars, computers and other tech being made obsolete at an increasing rate of knots by autonomous upstarts, could they be repurposed into domestic robots or assistive tech for disabled people?

Bruce Sterling, a founder of the cyberpunk and steampunk literature genres, isn’t so sure.

“Have you ever seen anything directly made out of pieces of a recycled car?” he asks. “We’ve had hundreds of millions of cars for decades, but it’s pretty rare to go into somebody’s home or business and see any pieces of cars. Cutting-up cars is a cool idea, but people don’t do it because it’s such a hassle.”

Cutting-up cars is a cool idea, but people don’t do it because it’s such a hassle

Sterling says repurposing scrap technology into household gadgets is only worthwhile in areas of extreme poverty with no manufacturing, in places under economic embargo and in wartime. In rural India, for example, home hacks are known by the colloquial Hindi and Punjabi term Jugaad. Jugaad could see a road vehicle powered by an agricultural water pump engine, a wagon built on the back of a bicycle or an old telephone handset used to replace a missing chair arm.

“Even though it’s ingenious, it doesn’t work well because it doesn’t scale up and it’s not conveniently available through conventional retail channels,” says Sterling. “Instead of Jugaad, cars are fed into car-crushers and shredded. Reselling crushed and shredded bits of cars is actually a pretty good business. Not glamorous, but it pays okay.”

One place old cars are getting a new lease of life is Somalia, where since the early 1990s the word Technicals has been used to describe an improvised civilian pick-up truck or four-wheeled vehicle mounted with a weapon and used by local militia. The term has since been adopted by irregular armies in other conflict zones around the world, and they could soon incorporate driverless technologies in the same way as military manufacturers.

Outside of war zones, this sort of hack is rare. “There aren’t many chop-shop millionaires in the world. It’s unrewarding work and fiercely persecuted by the authorities because it encourages car-theft,” says Sterling.

Electronics have also crashed in price and don’t have much secondary market value. As a case in point, a DARPA programme called Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) is developing a throwaway drone made of cardboard.

“So, instead of a Frankenstein world with steampunk mix-and-match cars and drones, a world of hacked and criminalised used cars and plastic drones seems a lot more plausible to me,” concludes Sterling. “Vehicles do get old, they get cruddy, people strip out the safety overrides and do illegal stuff with them; it’ll never be a full industrial base, but there’s a lot of grimy potential there.”

Recycled Robot Wars

One man who has seen his fair share of repurposed junk is Noel Sharkey, Robot Wars judge and emeritus professor of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics & Public Engagement at the University of Sheffield.

“In the first incarnation of Robot Wars, the most common motors were recycled from large lorry and coach windscreen wipers and electric window winders, fire extinguishers and heavy duty batteries,” he says. “Would-be contestants were circulating around scrap yards everywhere, and when I visited them myself for robot components, they would say, ‘It’s all your fault that we’re being swamped with kids!’”

Image courtesy of Jorge Ferrari

However, in the latest 2017 reboot on BBC2, this is no longer the case as the battles require high efficiency and power to win.

“The technology has moved on fairly dramatically and so we see a lot of brand new motors and [wear-resistant sheet steel] hardox armour in the winning teams, and brand new lithium polymer batteries that you won’t find in scrap yards,” says Sharkey. “I would love to see a strictly recycled robot competition that really pushed on creativity – a scrapyard challenge of robotics.”

Sharkey argues that although recycled technology may not be acceptable for assistive technology, it can be useful for developing prototypes. “I once turned an electric wheelchair into a navigating robot to carry people who couldn’t steer themselves but it wouldn’t have been commercially acceptable,” he says.

Sharkey believes that in the current environment, researchers and manufacturers working in robotics have a responsibility to recycle to limit environmental impact.

“It is not part of our mainstream engineering culture at present, but I would certainly support a drive in this direction,” he says. “The problem is that technology is evolving so quickly with components getting smaller and more efficient that it is difficult to use the old. In the future, we may go through a period of technological stability and then recycling will become much more popular.”

Industrial collaboration

That responsibility extends to robots in the workplace. Professor Samia Nefti-Meziani, professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, holds a chair in Robotics and is the Director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems and Advanced Robotics at the University of Salford.

“We’re interested in Industry 4.0; cyber-physical systems that will be used in cognitive factories of the future,” says Nefti-Meziani. “The aim is to build robots that can think, collaborate and safely share the same workspace as the workers on the shop floor, and collaborate and cooperate intelligently with each other.”

Nefti-Meziani says her team reuses components such as actuators and drives to build new robots or prototypes, as robotics research is always is hungry for money. But not everything can be re-used.

“Drones, robots and cars are often made using carbon fibre that cannot be recycled,” she explains. “And robot arms used for decommissioning in the nuclear industry have to be decommissioned themselves when they finish the job.”

Nefti-Meziani believes low-cost robotics, sustainability, energy efficiency and recyclability are equally important, and more needs to be done to reinforce that element of projects.

“We need sustainability to be built into the core of everything,” she says.

Robot oboes

Jim Finnis is a PHD student in Aberystwyth University’s Intelligent Robotics Group. He has worked on a control system for a Mars rover prototype using cheap hobbyist kit, designed a hormone-based power management system for the real ExoMars rover for EADS, and carried out a depth survey of Loch Morlich using the group’s robot boat, Minty 2, to look for a wreck off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

Image and featured image courtesy of Alex Stuart

“We reuse motors and small computers a lot – Arduinos [microcontroller kits] and Raspberry Pis, typically, and other components; bits of wiring and switches and knobs,” he says. “We have drawers full of old kit, some of it very old. However, once we have bolted it into a project it can be hard to unbolt.”

While Finnis agrees with Nefti-Meziani that not everything can be re-used – robot chassis are generally different every time, for example – many components can. He is using an old webcam to track a robot in his current experiments, for example.

“The camera looks for a red blob, which is an LED ripped out of an old circuit and covered with a ping-pong ball with a hole cut in it, powered by a watch battery using an impromptu battery holder made out of paperclips,” he says. “But that kind of improvisation wouldn’t work in a robot designed for tough environments.”

Finnis also has a scavenger-friendly hobby: building weird musical instruments, including a plumber’s tube that forms a light-driven instrument dubbed the Bloody Stupid Johnson Memorial Oboe and a self-playing glockenspiel made out of an old school instrument and bits of a biro.

He also made a ‘data glove’ from an old glove, some conductive thread, a bright LED, an accelerometer and a MoteINO – a tiny wireless-enabled computer – which looks like it has reached straight out from the pages of a cyberpunk novel. You can see it in action here with dancer Cêt Haf using it to control the parameters and sections of a performance piece.

Our cyberpunk present

While we may feel the technical and political environment is ripe for the robot chop-shops cyberpunk authors and filmmakers imagined, legal and practical restrictions and the low price of new components means we’re unlikely to be living alongside hacked-together automatons in the near future. But this hasn’t stopped professional and amateur roboticists from using recycled materials for their projects.

So in the spirit of Jugaad, keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive by using found materials to suspend your laptop above your bed tonight to watch a film without straining your neck. Or drift off to the strains of the Bloody Stupid Johnson Memorial Oboe.

Select technologies have had a powerful impact on life in many African nations, and as a result the continent has taken on a distinctly cyberpunk feel. But while having tech transported into Africa is often pointed to as the cause, we look at how the continent has it own innovators to be thankful for

Nokia has played a key role in African innovation. When the company’s 1100 became available in Africa, the continent’s people the tech to do-it-yourself use, creating innovations that have continued to blossom: mobile banking companies, solar-powered phone charging co-ops, pay-per-view educational tablets and drones that answer cargo and medical delivery issues.

Frequently, these innovations have risen out of necessity, so mobile phones have stood in for physical banking systems, portable solar panels took the place of unreliable power grids, apps filled in for precarious or non-existent state education and drones traverse roads where other means of travel is impossible.

“According to GSMA, there will be 700 million smart phone connections in Africa by 2020,” says Sylvia Mukasa, Women in Tech Africa’s Chapter Lead for Kenya. “Who would have thought this a decade ago?”

Leapfrogging in reality

The 1100, which retailed for less than $30, was proof of two things: African ingenuity and leapfrogging’s potential. These are premises that trend-spotters and start-ups in the West have buzzed over for some time now. But not everyone is convinced. “Africa is often thought of as a monolith; worse still as a single country,” says global business investment strategist Harry G Broadman, CEO and managing partner of Proa Global Partners LLC. In reality, the continent is comprised of 54 distinct and heterogeneous countries that differ in terms of needs, development and resources. Framing Africa as a unit of analysis in leapfrogging terms is just not constructive.

Feature image courtesy of courtesy of Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. Image courtesy of Gearbox

Plus, says Broadman, the focus on adopting foreign tech does the continent’s home-grown inventors a disservice. South Africa, which benefits from reliable roads, steady power and an abundance of graduates, might be the continent’s sole mature tech scene, “but it’s the eastern Horn of Africa, with the recent emergence of numerous incubators that’s becoming home to some of the most cutting edge innovations on the continent.”

The PICS bag (a triple-layered crop and seed storage bag that is air and water-tight, providing protection from moisture, pests and high temperatures, allowing farmers to time their sowing around favourable weather conditions and market prices)  developed by West and Central African farmers together with agricultural researchers from Purdue University, is a prime example of the kind of innovations Africa develops for itself.

As The Economist points out, leapfrogging may not be the cure-all solution Africa needs or wants. “Drones can transport blood, but they can’t transport doctors, who need roads. Solar panels will help people light their homes without burning kerosene, but they will not replace the functioning grid that manufacturers need. Nor will clever technology firms do away with the need for well-drafted regulation and the rule of law.” Leapfrogging may even worsen development, points out Broadman – especially in communities where unemployment is rife. “Introducing labor-saving processes could well exacerbate rather than strengthen social stability and economic development.”

Community-based projects

Happily, that’s not been the case with M-KOPA, the pay-as-you solar energy service that started life in Kenya, says Mukasa. “As of September 2014, M-KOPA was providing affordable power to over 100,000 households and business, adding 2500 more every week according to the company website. The company sells through more than 1000 retail agents and shops and has over 400 staff, meaning it’s created employment opportunities too.”

Denise McKenzie, head of outreach for Open Geospatial Consortium is cautiously sceptical. “I’m not yet convinced leapfrogging is a wide-spread phenomenon. But I do believe the potential is there. There are some amazing examples where the tech adoption around drones, for example, is unlike anything we have seen in the rest of the world. A great example of this is the Ramani Huria project in Dar e Salaam.”

There are some amazing examples where the tech adoption around drones, for example, is unlike anything we have seen in the rest of the world

This community-based mapping project in Tanzania trains teams of local university students and community members to create sophisticated maps of Dar, including the city’s most flood-prone ward. These areas, the majority of which are made up of unplanned and informal settlements, become incredibly vulnerable during the annual rain seasons when floods destroy roads, homes and lives. Effective mapping, which takes in residential areas, roads, streams, floodplains and other relevant features, can help with both disaster prevention and relief, routing help to areas that had previously been off the map.

These maps – which are available online, for download and also delivered in printed form to the local governing bodies of each ward – are combined with other data in InaSAFE, a free software that allows users to run realistic natural disaster scenarios for better planning and response.  As the Ramani Huria website points out: “The project will bring awareness of the need for flood prevention and risk reduction to the local level, while teaching participants valuable computer and mapping skills that they can put to use elsewhere.”

It’s a World Bank-supported project now, but it was the city’s slum communities that pioneered the Ramani Huria project, using drone data to build maps of the city in OpenStreetMap. McKenzie says their resourcefulness “will challenge the traditional way national mapping agencies have made digital maps for the past 30 years”.

Innovation from within

Ghana’s vice president Dr Mahamadu Bawumia is certainly taking African innovation seriously. Bawumia used his platform at a recent convention to rally African leaders around this area, calling on government and big business to nurture Africa’s would-be tech pioneers.

“Africa is a huge continent with huge resources. What we have not done over the years is to leverage all these resources to develop the continent. But increasingly, you’re seeing some transformation taking place in many countries.

“What we’re realising, and what many countries are understanding, is that if you’re going to leapfrog, you really have to lead that charge yourself. Nobody else is going to come and say: ‘Hey, you have to leapfrog’ because you’re competing with everybody else. You’re in a globally competitive environment. You have to do it yourself.”

But despite the desire for self-sufficiency, foreign investors stand to make healthy profits when they step in to finance or collaborate with African nations. M-Pesa, the branchless mobile phone-based bank that launched in 2007, is proof of that points out Makusa. “Both Safaricom in Kenya and its parent company Vodafone in UK have reaped financial gains,” says Makusa.

Africana doesn’t need to rely on partnerships. Richard Turere, the feted young Maasai boy who invented lion lights in 2011, is a brilliant example of native, shoestring ingenuity. Using a car battery, a motorcycle indicator box, a switch and a flashlight, this Turere rigged up what became a cheap, efficient and humane solution to keeping his family’s livestock safe from roaming predators. “Kenya’s lion population has dropped from 15,000 a decade ago to under 2000,” says Makusa. “Human-wildlife conflict in Kenya is a big deal and conservationists say that most of the top-down initiatives fail to gain traction from the communities, so locally-made inventions that are affordable, effective and easy to use can make a big difference.”

‘African solutions for African problems’ is a popular adage among the continent’s development champions. That’s because “Africans understand their own issues and obstacles better than foreigners do,” says Makusa. “They also understand local dynamics, allowing them to know better how to navigate around systems to make things work in their own back yard. I believe that there is need for government, techies and other stakeholders to work alongside local communities to come up with local solutions since these communities need funds, knowledge, skills and expert advice.”