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Involving Public Works leaders in PMR governance

Author: Bern Grush [November 2, 2023]

Your Public Works Department will be the key governing focus when deploying public-area mobile robots

In a near-certain future, there will be a few types of public-area mobile robots (PMRs) operating in your city or town. These will be performing tasks related to one or more activities such as security, maintenance, or last-mile delivery. In a highly likely future, there will be dozens of types of PMRs operating for many distinct purposes within an urban region.

In either scenario, some or many municipal departments will be involved in PMR governance. The principal among these will be your Public Works Department with a mandate to regulate and manage your public rights-of-way (PROW).

This will include matters of:

- Ensuring structural integrity, availability, safety and accessibility of the PROW.

This implies new duties of care given mixed access by both robotic devices and vulnerable humans.

- Permitting, locating, inspecting and restoring pavement.

This is not only fundamental to PMR operation but may require upgrading to meet existing accessibility guidelines and to meet increasing future demands created by permitted robotics programs.

- Managing cooperation, scheduling and coordination mechanisms for all PROW users.

Using rules, bylaws, and licensing agreements at first, multi-fleet orchestration systems will eventually be required for scheduling and coordination as PMR use expands within the public domain.

- Maintaining accurate information for facilities within PROWs.

This will increase in importance as some system maps and GIS systems may need to be updated in near real time such as daily, hourly or more often especially where these pertain to road crossings. (Updated maps are needed by fleet operators – consider, for example construction updates, special events, or crash cleanup sites.)

- Managing third-party access agreements for equipment or operations located in PROWs.

This will increase in importance as some PMRs may use this infrastructure for logistics operations or may locate equipment for maintenance operations under contract to your public works department.

- Manage assessment and receipt of compensation for the commercial use of PROWs.

The need for monetization is required since “public agencies, who have a limited tax base, face challenges when striving to keep ROWs in a state of good repair … while business demands grow faster than can be accommodated by infrastructure capacity and the number of players [sharing] ROWs increase.

**IMPORTANT NOTE** The budgets of public agencies are directly impacted by the requirements for administration, traffic control and re-routing, and inspections related to the construction, installation, repair and maintenance of these systems.[1]

- Oversight of the deployment, maintenance, and operation of robots

for tasks related to infrastructure maintenance and management, such as snow removal, de-icing, mowing, sweeping, monitoring and inspection. If any of these are public-area mobile robots—i.e., operate near uninvolved, untrained humans—then related duties of care would apply.

For all of these reasons, your public works department or a dedicated team within that department will be the primary authority responsible for operations related to PMRs within your municipality or region.


In addition, other departments—some independent, others within Public Works—will play related and collaborative roles:

· Your transportation department will regulate and coordinate PMRs within your city's PROWs to ensure safety, traffic flow, and prevent conflicts. (This especially needs to be established once you have permitted/deployed multiple fleets.)

· Your police department will respond to incidents involving PMRs and may themselves be involved in using and overseeing security and other public safety PMRs and ensuring compliance with security and privacy regulations. They may also respond to incidents involving robots.

· Your city planning department will evaluate the impact of PMR deployment on urban infrastructure, zoning, accessibility compliance, pavement widening, road crossings, and future plans such as designs for complete streets, etc.

· If you have an innovation or new technology department, such as a Smart City or digitalization team, this group might take an active role in choosing and planning PMR systems.

· Your department for compliance matters—perhaps your legal department—would have regulatory responsibilities for PMRs. This might include contracts, permits, licenses, certifications, enforcement guidelines, liability, insurance, etc.

· Your environmental services department would ensure appropriate environmental regulations, such as might be involved with waste management or environmental monitoring.

· Your emergency services need to be informed about the presence of robots in the right-of-way and must have a way to assure that PMRs will not interfere with emergency responses.

· Your public relations team will need to communicate with residents, businesses, and other stakeholders. This would be to inform, address concerns, gather feedback and handle complaints.


The multifaceted nature of the public and social interface of PMRs will eventually touch on many if not most of your departments. This means that at some point you must consider a municipal role with the responsibility to coordinate all these matters. That role will likely start within your public works department, but it will eventually require a separate, oversight role reporting to the highest level within your city government.

[1] CPWA (2020) Public Policy Priorities 2020, Canadian Public Works Association

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