Tackling the Climate Crisis with Energy Transitions

Our third year Aerospace Engineering student Kieran Tait recently returned from a transformative journey through Western Canada, representing the University at the Energy Transitions summer school at the University of Alberta. A timely topic following the recent declaration of climate emergency here at the university. Over to Kieran to tell us about his time in Alberta…

Kieran underneath a glacier in Lake Louise, Banff National Park.

Throughout the two weeks, we endured a 40-hour lecture series, in which world-leading industry experts and researchers presented to us the current state of energy, the outlook for the future and an insight into different types of energy systems and their relative merits. This was superbly rounded off with insightful field trips including a tour around a wind farm and a hydroelectric dam, which really helped to contextualise the lectures.

The course was coordinated by the Worldwide Universities network, in which 21 representatives from 13 universities worldwide came together to study the practicalities of decarbonising society. The network brought a diversity of cultures and study areas together, which really shed light on the interconnectedness of the energy crisis and the need for mass mobilisation of society to focus minds on the solutions to the single biggest existential crisis humanity has ever faced. Climate breakdown.

The impending breakdown of our climate is an issue faced by every living being on Earth: no matter your nationality, race, gender, beliefs or background, the impacts of a warming world will completely transform your standard of living in the coming decades unless drastic steps are taken in the next 18 months to transition away from our current overconsuming, unsustainable way of life.

If we fail to meet this objective, we can expect unprecedented weather events, resulting in scarcity of basic human resources such as land, food and water, mass migration in the hundreds of millions and potentially the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Worse still, we can expect all of this as early as 2050 if action is not taken immediately. The seemingly impossible task imposed on our current generation is unparalleled in scale and complexity. It will require a collaboration among all disciplines and every nation on earth to achieve the sort of far reaching and functional solutions required to give us the best chance of limiting the warming trajectory preventing us from passing the point of no return.

Visiting the TransAlta wind farm in Pincher Creek, known as the Wind Capital of Canada.

The course in Energy Transitions provided me with the fundamental knowledge required to propose a logical working plan to phase out the current destructive energy policy and replace it with a more sustainable alternative. This included an overview of current climate science and projections for the future global energy mix, followed by an insight into a variety of energy production methods, including traditional fossil based systems such as coal, oil and gas and renewable types such as wind, solar, hydro, marine, geothermal, nuclear, biomass and hydrogen fuel cells.

The science behind each technology was explained thoroughly and the social, environmental and political implications associated with each type were also discussed. Also carbon sequestration methods such as Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage and land reclamation were explained to us in great depth, as it is clear that we need to not only reduce emissions to zero, but also begin to remove emissions that already exist in the atmosphere if we are to maximise our chances of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Alongside lectures, we also got the chance to go to Pincher Creek, a town in southern Alberta which is home to a large number of wind farm projects, making use of the region’s windy climate. We got the chance to visit a wind farm and go inside a turbine and we were also shown around a hydroelectric dam, bringing to life the concepts studied in lectures. Further to this we visited Waterton Lakes national park to experience some of the natural beauty Canada has to offer.

The group outside the house of the University’s founder Alexander Rutherford, before a ceremonial dinner.

When we returned, it was back to work as we all were tasked with presenting to the rest of the group, a proposal for energy transition solutions throughout different areas of the world. My team and I were given the job of proposing an EU wide energy transition plan. A timely subject following the newly anointed European Commissioner’s calls for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. This task involved reviewing current policy and future goals, developing a sustainable infrastructure plan which would sufficiently meet increasing demand and discussing the issues associated with this transition.

Working with students from Spain, Ghana and Brazil led to some contrasting opinions and views on various subject matters, however the overwhelming consensus was that the transition had to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible, acknowledging the need to sacrifice living standards in order to allow this rapid transition to happen. It is reassuring to know that despite our cultural differences, we all share the same view that action must be taken immediately, and we must undergo a process of degrowth to cut further emissions and keep temperature rises to a minimum to avert catastrophic climate change.

All in all, this course excelled at bringing like-minded inquisitive individuals together from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds to discuss the most pressing technological, political and ethical challenge humanity has ever faced. It’s admittedly a very frightening time to be a young person, but its undeniable that the times ahead present humanity with a chance to reach a new age in technological and cognitive ability and will allow for multi-national cooperation like the world has never seen before. I would like to thank the Worldwide Universities Network, the University of Alberta and everybody involved for making this incredible experience a possibility!

It’s fantastic to hear Kieran’s passion and enthusiasm for combating the climate crisis we are facing through engineering and renewable energy solutions. This is something that the University is highly committed to and this year world-leading renewable energy expert Andrew Garrard will be joining the Faculty as a visiting professor to enhance our teaching of sustainable energy not only to our engineering undergraduates but to students across the University. 

Upcoming Events

  • Climate Emergency Lecture, 27 September Kieran will be delivering a talk at the Climate Emergency Lecture on decarbonising the aviation industry through electric aircraft and the use of alternative fuels. See event details here.

  • Dr Andrew Garrard Inaugural Lecture, 3 October Andrew has unrivalled technical and business experience in the sustainable energy sector. His lecture will explore the political means adopted to achieve the recent dramatic global growth in renewables and the engineering challenges, technical and political, which face the next generation of engineers. Get your free ticket here.

Fitter, happier… the rise of social robots

Socially Assistive Robots can provide motivation and guidance for those in need of a companion – Katie Winkle, Bristol Robotics Lab PhD student, explains ways that this is already happening

On 4 August this year, the maverick French inventor Franky Zapata crossed the Channel on a jet-powered hoverboard, with the 21-mile journey taking him just over 23 minutes. Clearly a remarkable achievement, but also a very public prompt to all those working in labs on the cool tech of the future – as envisioned by the sci-fi shows of the 50s – that they need to up their game. Yes, the white-coated technicians responsible for jetpacks, flying cars and robot housekeepers – we are talking about you. Teasing aside, Katie Winkle, a PhD student currently undertaking research at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, specialises in the field of Socially Assistive Robotics (SAR) and is certain that her area of study isn’t an unrealisable sci-fi pipe dream.

“I don’t think the use of robots as social companions and helpers is that far away, actually,” she says confidently. “Right now, I could program a robot for a specific use case for a school or a hospital. The real difficulty is in scaling that up in a way that still works for lots of different people and applications. That’s why we are researching it, but it is doable. I’m optimistic.”

Socially Assistive Robotics is a relatively new area of robotics that focuses on assisting users through social rather than physical interaction. So while there are physical robots that have been designed to help with ostensibly manual tasks as varied as assembling cars or even picking strawberries, a Socially Assistive Robot is subtler than that.

‘Pepper’ robot demonstrates arm exercises to a patient

They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine.

They can support a trained practitioner, such as a teacher, to provide guidance and motivation to a person – in doing so, they attempt to give the correct cognitive cues to encourage development, learning, or therapy.

As Katie explains: “The distinction is that these robots aren’t physical, they are social. They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine. They could even help to combat the issue of loneliness. The key is that the usefulness comes from the social interaction, such as conversation and companionship, rather than a physical act.”

Pet rescue

Another key definition is that a Socially Assistive Robot is not simply for entertainment and they should perform a useful process. But what are the main fields that these robotic companions could help and what are the tangible examples?

Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.

“There are many, but the two areas I always mention first are health and education,” says Katie. “The applications we are starting to see linked to mental health are generally based around loneliness and dementia care. Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.”

Another example is the use of robots in autism therapy. For children who have autism or social anxiety, robots can provide a safe social companion, ‘someone’ they can practice social interaction with. Autistic children respond well in these circumstances. In these cases, the robots are being essentially used to help them with their social skills and that has a very real application of putting them back into human-human interaction.

Katie Winkle with a Nao robot

“All these robots are helping where you need a social presence and there isn’t a human available,” explains Katie. “So, in between therapy visits or gym sessions, there is a robot there to provide the motivation you don’t have.

“As a proposal for future research here at the Lab, I would love to take a robot into Bristol Childrens’ Hospital and use it as a companion for children who are isolated there long-term.”

The use of Socially Assistive Robots in education is essentially the same thing again: helping children who perhaps need extra attention, or children in group sizes that are too big. The robot can perform small group work.

“It’s anywhere where you’d like to have an intelligent social presence, but you don’t. They are all cases where social influence is important,” adds Katie.

Personality issues

It’s important to Katie that her work at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory must at all times consider the end-user, the human who is being assisted by the robot. Just as you might not get along with your teacher or clash with the personality of another, is there any guarantee you’ll get on with your robot?

“The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

“When we talk about robot personalities and robot emotions,” explains Katie, “what we are really saying is how well can we program a robot to look like it has those. This means we need to learn about human behaviour and then hook it into a robot. If someone is an extrovert, they’ll talk a lot, move hands about… we can model many of those things from psychology and put it on a robot. The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

Metal motivators

“I’m working on a study right now where I’ve got a robot set up in the gym over on campus. The idea is to help people with the Couch To 5k running programme over a nine-week programme, with the robot assisting three times a week. To begin with, the robot is being controlled with the fitness instructor and over time, the robot will learn how to give encouragements at the right time.

“The robot will be giving the runners challenges. Some will respond to direct encouragement – ‘Come on, you can do it! Push a bit harder!’, while with others, it will be more sympathetic, because that’s what they need. Personalisation of robot interaction is a big thing.”

Katie’s Couch To 5k study is an easy-to-understand, tangible concept that brings the near-endless possibilities of Socially Assistive Robots to life. But are there any areas where they won’t be able to help?

We’ll leave the final word to Katie: “I’ve seen work investigating the effectiveness of a ‘marriage counsellor’ robot – it was a talking head in a wig that was supposed to facilitate conversation in couples therapy. Even I’m not sure about that one just yet, it’s a bit of a stretch.”

Academic profile

Name: Katie Winkle (MEng)
Title: PhD Student at Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Studies:
MEng Mechanical Engineering
PhD Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Katie’s story:
“Growing up, I was interested in cars, in how machines work, stuff we can build using science in an applied way. My dad was a car mechanic and he encouraged my curiosity.

“My Undergraduate Degree was Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol. I was all set to go into the automotive industry and wasn’t at all thinking about robotics. Then we had a final-year lecturing unit on the subject and it completely captured my imagination.

“I originally thought I’d work with very physical assistive robots, like those that help you walk. But as I got here, I found I was much more drawn to social interaction. I found it much more interesting. I was amazed that I could put a social robot in front of somebody right now and how I could make that useful. I find the underlying psychology so fascinating and that’s why I’m where I ended up now.”