What Is the Role of Robots in Smart Cities?

Posted on 27/03/2024 by ZacAmos in Discover

Robotics has emerged as one of the most impactful solutions in smart cities. Robots fill numerous roles that humans once occupied. How are they contributing? More importantly, how can city officials work around their current limitations?

The Rise of Robotics in Smart Cities 

As more cities have embraced modernization, what technology works and what doesn’t has become apparent. While technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence have been impactful, they have an even greater effect if integrated into robots.

Unlike other modern technologies, robots can work alongside and interact with humans. Many can move freely, opening up a tremendous number of use cases. Even though they fill many of the same roles as existing solutions, their unique features give them a noticeable advantage.

Robotics has played a considerable role in transforming urban areas and guiding their future development. While the smart city adoption rate was 33% as of 2023, it will likely increase as more officials realize the potential robots have to transform their cities for the better.

How Robots Contribute to Smart Cities

In smart cities, robots have numerous roles to fill. 

1. Package Delivery

Small mobile robots with cameras and sensors can navigate sidewalks to deliver packages or mail. While some companies have pushed for drone use, wheeled versions are more widespread.

2. Emergency Response

Robots can fill fundamental emergency response roles usually performed by humans. They can fight fires, dig through rubble after an earthquake or survey a disaster zone from above. However they help, they keep people out of harm’s way.

3. Public Transport

Smart cities are beginning to use autonomous vehicles for public transport. They’re less likely to make mistakes that could harm pedestrians or drivers, so they’re ideal for congested areas. They can adjust their route to avoid delays if they connect to city systems.

4. Traffic Enforcement

A robot can take on the role of a parking attendant or traffic officer to write tickets for violations, alert citizens of accidents or help people remember where their car is parked. This helps prevent congestion and crashes.

5. Public Surveillance

Robots fill basic security roles better than AI-powered cameras because they can move around, providing a better range of data. Plus, they let citizens report suspicious activity so law enforcement can prevent more crime.

6. Sanitation

AI-powered robots can clean streets and remove trash. While it isn’t a glamorous use case, it’s necessary — sanitation is vital for the health and happiness of citizens. Using machines instead of humans is beneficial because they are less expensive and more reliable. 

7. Construction and Repair

Robots can build, inspect and repair structures to keep smart cities in top shape. They can complete tasks like lifting heavy objects and monitoring a job site. Whether they fill potholes on highways or scan bridges for damage, they operate quickly and accurately. 

The Security Risks of Smart City Robots 

While robots are vital additions to any smart city, their use comes with certain security risks. Since they exchange data with city systems to analyze and share information in real time, they put critical infrastructure — like water treatment facilities and power plants — at risk. 

A threat actor that exploits a security weakness in a robot can access critical infrastructure control systems and wreak havoc. They could inject malware, interrupt service or steal data. Their actions could leave entire neighborhoods without power, water or emergency services.

One of the larger security risks of smart city robots is the expanded attack surface. Each one represents a new potential weak point for attackers to exploit. The more extensive the network of machines is, the easier it will be for someone to infiltrate and tamper with them unnoticed.

If robots connect to the internet — a concept called the Internet of Robotic Things (IoRT) — they are even more vulnerable to cyberattacks. An attacker could exploit this interconnectedness to infect multiple devices simultaneously or ensnare them in a botnet. 

Considering there were 112.3 million IoT attacks in 2022 — up from 60 million in 2021 — internet-connected robots present a genuine risk to smart cities. Unfortunately, they’re widely popular because they streamline navigation, information collection and data sharing.

Even if smart cities do everything right, they are still prone to data breaches, malware infection and service interruptions if they use a vendor. While third-party providers are common — they manage responsibilities city officials don’t have time for — they often introduce vulnerabilities.

Third-party vendors often aren’t as strict with security as they should be because it’s not their reputation or revenue they have to worry about if they get breached. Still, even if they’re attentive and dedicated, one mistake on their side can lead to a huge security incident.

Why Do Attackers Target Smart City Robots?

Smart city robots are a common target because they collect, transmit and store an enormous amount of data. Depending on their role, they have access to citizens’ names, faces, addresses and health records. Threat actors trade in information, so those details are valuable to them.

While threat actors could technically attack hospitals, banks or retailers to get the same information, they often choose to target cities instead because it’s much easier. Many municipalities use outdated security systems and are unaware of the latest cybersecurity standards.

How to Address the Security Risks 

While the unique security risks robots introduce are alarming, there are multiple ways for smart cities to protect themselves. 

Follow Best Practices

Smart cities should follow the latest cybersecurity best practices to effectively combat emerging threats. There are multiple reputable sources they can get this information from. For instance, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has proposed regulations to address cyberthreats that threaten critical infrastructure. 

Segment Networks 

Since the IoRT poses such a huge threat, city officials should take measures to enhance their network security. Every internet-connected device should be a secondary network to prevent lateral movement. Smart cities should have multiple segments for each cluster of machines, depending on their role or risk level. 

Audit Third-Party Vendors

Since third parties have the potential to cause a massive cybersecurity incident, city officials should review and vet their options carefully before committing to a vendor. Afterward, routine audits are vital even if they seem to be doing everything right. Smart cities can only prevent attacks if they detect indicators of compromise early on. 

Use Secure Technology

City officials who invest in robots with components built for privacy will be better protected against cyberthreats. For instance, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) consists of eye-safe laser beams that digitally map surroundings — no need for facial recognition. Technologies like this fill in some of the most common security gaps.

The Future of Robots in Smart Cities

While robots can be massively beneficial to smart cities, city officials must address security risks before they can achieve a successful widespread deployment. It’s the only way to ensure citizens and critical infrastructure remain safe from cyberthreats.

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