If you haven't seen the Disney/Pixar movie Wall-E, then all you need to know about that reference are two words: trash robot. Now, of course I don't mean a robot made of garbage, but rather the future of trash collection, automation. There are tons of different ideas being built and in prototype stages with limited implementation, however the results are promising, and the future of this industry looks wide-open.
In 2009 there was the DustCart in Italy, essentially a computer-controlled roving garbage collector that can receive a garbage item from someone on the street, and will make sure that it gets to the correct receptacle. These are meant for city ownership and operation, as opposed to private ownership, being small enough to maneuver narrow streets and alleys, and basically be anywhere people are, which is where the garbage will be.
As recent as last year, which is presumably still being tested, I found an automated trash can called Baryl, which zips around and offers its receptacle to passersby with something to throw away.
I wonder how these machines can tell if something needs to be thrown away? In the video, it can be seen going up to people and illuminating the lighted ring around its collection area, prompting them to throw something away. I wonder how much of it was staged for the video, and is more of a concept or a vision as to what they want to accomplish. If you think about it, there would need to be some level of decision making and situational awareness on the part of the robot, in order to gauge what is trash, and when to approach people to prompt them to throw something away. Is it based on the way something is held, or can it examine maybe a crumpled up sandwich wrapper or empty coffee cup, and know that it is trash? I can see myself having just bought some food to go, sitting down to eat it, and have one of these little guys come up and expect me to throw it away. I hope they can understand "I'm not done yet, thanks." A relatively high level of sophistication would be required of this robot's operating system, it would need to be able to make these decisions and need to be able to participate in some sort of simple interactions. Interesting to think of trash cans as sophisticated technology, but I'm all for it.
Car maker Volvo, in conjunction with several organizations, including Penn State University, are making moves to develop trash collector robots to replace the daily trash collectors that ride along with the garbage trucks. These would be way more advanced than the roving trash cans, and would need to involve advanced robotics: balancing, decision-making, lifting, moving, and would need to be reliable and easily repaired/cleaned.
Below is an example of Boston Dynamics progress in robotic bipedal movement.
On another note, the Baltimore Inner Harbor has implemented a solar and water powered "trash wheel" that funnels trash in the harbor into its conveyor belt, and into a dumpster. The dumpsters are switched out by boat as necessary. So far, it has collected over a million pounds of refuse since May 2014. And thats just a single one! Imagine a few of these in various places in all waterways across the world, and how much cleaner they could make the water and our environments in general. Healthier plant life, healthier ecosystems, healthier animals, healthier people. These don't require any sort of advanced robotics and AI, they are just a collection of solar panels and motors, bolted together with strong steel frames, so that anything from an empty water bottle to a 2,000 lb tree branch broken in a storm, can be scooped up by the trash wheel all the same.
One more specific technology I wanted to point out is the Seabin, essentially a trash can that is mostly submerged, latched to a dock or marina, that pulls in water by way of gravity, holds onto the trash that comes in with the water, and lets the water flow back out through a separate spout. The company's goal is to be able to construct more seasons with the recycled plastic from the garbage the Seabins collect.
Equally important as the proper collection of garbage, is the proper sorting of that garbage once it has been collected. Paper, plastic, glass, compost, etc.; there is certainly more to garbage than getting it dumped in the right place. How much of that is reusable? How much new material needs to be produced, when there very well could be more than enough available in recycling the old? These are questions of another topic, and perhaps for this blog, another time. I will link off to some things that I found, such as prototype trash sorting robots (presumably for use at landfills and recycling centers), and trash can that simply sorts what you throw away into it, to other bins designated for recycling and so on.
While these developments are promising and their potential is vast, the real solution is going to come from people changing their behavior. Starting at your home, on your visit to the coffee shop, revolutionizing what we do with our waste, is going to begin with caring, caring what happens to your waste, and caring enough to act.
Penn State and Volvo - ROAR Project
Robot Trash Collector Scours The Waters Of The Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor
Want Your Garbage Picked Up? There’s a Robot for That
Trash Talk: Your Next Garbageman Could Be a Robot
To Recycle, or Not To Recycle? This Trash Robot Knows For Sure