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Robotics Technology

Robots' Next Big Job: Trash Pickup 112

Nerval's Lobster writes: You've heard of self-driving cars, fast-moving robots, and automated homes. Now a research group led by Volvo, a waste-recycling company, and a trio of universities in the United States and Sweden want to bring much of the same technology to bear on a new problem: trash disposal. Specifically, the consortium wants to build a robot that will collect trash-bins from in front of peoples' homes, carry those bins to the nearest waste-disposal truck, and empty them. While that's a pretty simple (although smelly) task for a human being, it's an incredibly complex task for a robot, which will need to evaluate and respond to a wide range of environmental variables while carrying a heavy load. An uneven curb, or an overloaded bin, could spell disaster. Hopefully Volvo's experiment can succeed in a way that some of its other self-driving projects have failed. It's struck me, too, how the trash collection vehicles that come by my house are mostly piloted robots already; the humans are there to deal with problems and control the joysticks, but hydraulic arms lift and empty the garbage containers themselves.
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Robots' Next Big Job: Trash Pickup

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  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:05PM (#50567599)
    ...but in suburban and rural areas this really wouldn't be that necessary. As long as there's room for a standardized bin to be wheeled to the street by the tenant or resident of the property then the trash truck is capable of automatically picking up the can and dumping its contents so long as the driver stops the truck at the right spot.

    There are still some places where two or three men work each truck, where one drives and one or two manually dump the tenants' or residents' own cans instead of a standardized can supplied by the municipality, but I suspect those are more due to negotiated rules between the unions and the waste management services; the unions want to keep their people employed and the service doesn't want to spend $300,000 per truck to replace their old manual truck that still run with new automated trucks, so they keep the existing system in place.

    Makes me wonder how easy it would be to automate trash collection from high density areas though, where each building and possibly each floor would have its own unique method for placing trash for collection. It might require standardization, to a degree, on the part of the residents.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:25PM (#50567765)

      I live in an urban area, and unfortunately there has been an influx of hipsters over the last three or four years. If you aren't aware, hipsters tend to not have kids. Instead they own dogs. Not just one or two dogs, but sometimes three or four dogs. Since they live in loft apartments without yards, they just let their dogs shit outside. Being the products of suburbia, these hipsters tend not to know how to do something as basic as pick up dog shit with a scoop, or even a bag over their hand.

      So our public areas are now covered in dog shit. It's all over the place. It's on the sidewalks. It's on park benches. It's hidden in the grass. It's tracked all over the place by innocent victims who accidentally have stepped in it.

      Getting these hipsters to clean up their dogs' shit isn't going to happen. I'm not even certain that they can bend down that far, given how tight their jeans are, especially on the men with the fanciest artisanal moustaches. They won't give up their dogs, either, because these are their "fur babies".

      We need robots that could come along and automatically clean up the dog shit that's all over the place. Then it can dispose of it by sneaking up behind these hipsters, and smearing the shit all over the backs and clothes of these hipsters.

      Those are the kinds of robots we need!

      • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:33PM (#50567841)

        timed honored solution to that problem. shoot their damn dogs

        • by TWX ( 665546 )

          All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon
          When we're poisoning pigeons^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hcanines in the park
          Every Sunday you'll see my sweetheart and me
          As we poison the pigeons^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hcanines in the park...

      • by jbengt ( 874751 )

        I live in an urban area, and unfortunately there has been an influx of hipsters over the last three or four years. . . .Getting these hipsters to clean up their dogs' shit isn't going to happen. It's all over the place.

        B.S. I grew up in an urban area and lived there for decades. I can tell you unequivocally that the dogshit was there before the hipsters arrived.

      • by Toshito ( 452851 )

        Being hipsters, I'm surprised they didn't pick up their dog's poop before it was cool.

      • Wow, I would give you a million mod points if I had them. Best post ever.
    • AI pretty much agree. The process is already pretty automated as it is. Truck comes by every Thursday and robotic arms already grab and empty the bin.

      The pace at which the driver can move from house to house is pretty impressive. Our entire street doesn't take more than a few minutes. I honestly don't see It getting much more efficient.

      • The process is already pretty automated as it is.

        I get the feeling that the author of TFA doesn't really know the state-of-the-art in trash disposal. Unless you can replace the driver, the process is not going to get much more efficient, and I don't think a 5 ton garbage truck in a residential neighborhood is a good place to introduce self-driving vehicles.

        • by mrzaph0d ( 25646 )
          i'm all for it if they can stop running over my lawn in the alleyway. or at least alternate, they never seem to run over the lawn of my neighbor across the alley. ever.
      • The process is already pretty automated as it is. Truck comes by every Thursday and robotic arms already grab and empty the bin.

        Our semi-rural area is kind of weird. While our recycle bins are provided by the disposal company and are emptied by a semi-automated truck in the manner you describe, our garbage pickup (run by that same company) involves a guy on the truck picking up our (self-provided) trash cans and dumping them into the truck manually.

        Actually half the time it appears the poor guy driving the truck is doing it all - driving the truck, getting out, running to the curb, dumping the can, then getting back into the truck t

      • Yep. The exception I see is that sometimes the dude has to hop out when there is a car too close and he needs to drag it out in the street. Autonomous trash trucks won't handle that.

        • Yep. The exception I see is that sometimes the dude has to hop out when there is a car too close and he needs to drag it out in the street. Autonomous trash trucks won't handle that.

          Sure they will. They just won't pick those cans up. Then it will be up to the owners of the cans to work out a solution with their neighbors to ensure that there's enough space to position the can for pickup.

    • There are still some places where two or three men work each truck, where one drives and one or two manually dump the tenants' or residents' own cans instead of a standardized can supplied by the municipality

      The City of Atlanta supplies standardized cans but still has guys on the truck manually emptying them. Maybe that's why trash pickup costs almost $50/month (for a single-family residence) here.

      • by TWX ( 665546 )
        That seems weird. Our standardized cans for recycling are too large and heavy to be manhandled when they're full. The trash here is picked up from the alley, in cans that are very, very big and definitely not man-movable.
        • Likewise... While two people could lift one of our cans while full, it would be a heck of a task, they are 52 or 56 gallon cans that are heavy as heck when full of trash...

          The robot truck picks them up like they are toys however.

        • Our cans -- for both trash and recycling -- are "herby curbys," so they're (just barely) small enough to be wheeled or dragged around by a person, but probably not lifted. There are always three guys on a garbage truck: one to drive, and two to grab cans from the curb and put them on the lift to be dumped in the truck. The crew works both sides of the street at the same time, which is why there are two guys in the back, not one.

          Maybe "manually" was a poor choice of words since a machine actually dumps the c

      • I pay $26 a month for once weekly trash pickup, and it is done via machine truck with only a driver using those standard large cans.

        That $26 also covers yard debris removal and once a month bulk collection removal. It also includes every other week recycling removal.

        I honestly can't complain... For $300 a year, an incredible amount of waste, both trash and recycle materials, is removed from my home with the only effort on my part to put it in the back drive way either in one of the large bins, or on the g

      • That's a flat-out ripoff. We have people in my town who claim that our private trash pickup companies are somehow a menace to our roads (we have three or four who serve the area). They'd like to get a municipal contact, and claim it won't cost any more. I current pay $87 every three months. What do you think the chances are of that one monopoly company NOT jacking up the rate by the first contract renewal?
        • That's a flat-out ripoff.

          No kidding! And it's even worse than the situation you're talking about for your town: in Atlanta, trash pickup is run directly by the Public Works department. And it's billed as part of the property tax, so if you don't pay it they can foreclose on your house.

      • We have standardized bins for compost items (food waste, cat litter, etc) and when they are aren't very full the person empties it into the truck themselves. When it's heavy they use the lifter at the back of the truck. While the lifter is quick it's quicker still for them to dump it themselves.

        They are probably paid so much for doing the route or at least a certain minimum number of hours and when they are done their route they can go. I know that the people that deliver mail to the community mailboxes

    • by plover ( 150551 )

      The outlier that still amazes me was featured on Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs" show, where a trash collector in New Orleans uses a canvas sack. He negotiates a tiny staircase to climb or descend to a shop, dumps their trash into his tarp, then hauls the tarp back down to the truck where he empties it. It looks unchanged from the founding days of New Orleans.

      Could this be automated? There isn't currently space in the alleys or in the buildings for the trash cans themselves. It would require the city to change

      • by TWX ( 665546 )
        It's not all that different in high-density cities like New York. In some buildings garbage men still climb stairs up to upper floors to grab plastic bags of garbage left out in the hall by the tenants of the floor, haul them down to the truck, and go back up for more again.

        That's part why I don't know how good robotics would be for this unless they're willing to also modify how the trash gets accumulated in the buildings to start with, and the more consolidation done in each building, the easier it is
    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      Though our county service still uses the 2 men on the back of the truck method, it is now providing a standard trash can. If a marker were placed on the can next to the handle in the back, it shouldn't be TOO hard to get a grappler to find it's way to the handle (much like the automated charger we saw on /. a month or two ago finds the charge port). That would at least simplify the problem to be a matter of making sure the handle faces the street.

      • by TWX ( 665546 )
        Here, the claw is two clamshell halves with rubber pulled from two points. As the clamshell closes the rubber, not the metal, grabs the barrel. The arm lifts it and as it pivots over the truck right behind the cab the lid falls open from gravity and the contents spill into the truck. The truck then presses the contents back from the cab to the back of the hopper, so that the same hydraulics can also dump the truck when they get to the landfill.

        It's very efficient. There's enough play in the claw that
    • No Robot works as according to human understanding. If someone made a one of them. So, I thought that would be the masterpiece now. Bcos many of huge technology have made across the world. But human can't control as well if there is self-driving cars, fast-moving robots, and automated homes. Machines will help a lot to live better life with safety. So, Looking for safety of home, vehicle safety devices with key code. http://www.locksmithsinscottsd... [locksmiths...tsdale.com]
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Get that past the unions and city contractors.
    • by TWX ( 665546 )
      If the union leadership is smart they'll see that the automation is coming regardless, and will work toward a solution that slowly replaces workers as they retire with mechanization instead of one day the parent organization lays-off the entire union when the brand new fleet of autonomous machines appears. The Union can also migrate toward organization of the maintenance staff that take care of the machines, which will require their own specific kinds of maintenance, and are also probably somewhat better p
  • Yeah, but... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by i.r.id10t ( 595143 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:07PM (#50567613)

    From TFS:

    It's struck me, too, how the trash collection vehicles that come by my house are mostly piloted robots already; the humans are there to deal with problems and control the joysticks, but hydraulic arms lift and empty the garbage containers themselves.

    Where I am, the human drives the truck, gets it lined up with the can, etc. If some asshat homeowner puts the bin out too far from the curb, or turned "wrong" (sideways or backwards or not mostly square to the road), said worker has to hop out and get the bin in position for the arms to grab, slaps teh big red button on the side of the truck, and the hydraulics/mechanics/robotics take over from there.

    The human is still needed for the fuzzy logic stuff - driving, checking distance of the bin to the road, orientation of the bin, etc - but with a halfway considerate homeowner they don't need to get out of the truck that often. Big change from the "hop out, toss 2 full cans up and dump 'em in, compact it, head to next set of cans" model that was around a few years back...

    • by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:20PM (#50567727) Homepage

      You pinpointed the reason this will never work. It's too much trouble for the home owner. We can't even get people to recycle and compost in my area, because the people who own the houses would rather just throw everything in a single bin. Having automated pickup is going to cause so many more problems. If the trash doesn't get picked up because the robot didn't like the orientation of the bin, do you have to wait another week for the garbage to get picked up? What happens when you have a little bit more garbage than usual and you can't fit it all in the standard bin?

      We actually have the mechanical arms and standardized bins for compost, and they never use them. The guys doing the pickup have figured out it's much easier just to do it by hand. They can get the route done in less time and have more time to enjoy themselves.

      • by c ( 8461 )

        What happens when you have a little bit more garbage than usual and you can't fit it all in the standard bin?

        Places with recycling programs have a worse problem.

        Our previous municipality did curbside recycle sorting. We'd put stuff out already separated (although I suspect this wasn't a common practice; we just had extra bins), but they still had to dig through and pull out non-recyclables and handle mixups, plus plastic bags were handled separately, not to mention broken down cardboard boxes.

        Our current mu

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        If you don't orient the can reasonably properly, it gets left there. You will have to store it till the next pickup. Eventually, the smelly garbage encourages you to try orienting the can properly.

        • You don't live in my area. Based on the smelly crap that gets left, even with human workers, the people clearly don't have a sense of smell.

      • by jay age ( 757446 )

        Actually, I always though that would be a great use for robots, trash separation.

        As you say, you just don't get the people to recycle properly. We're likely to never get them to do it, so why not instead try developing robots with advanced vision and other sensors to recognize different types of trash, and nimble "hands" to sort them as they enter waste processing plants?

        It is certainly a hard problem both from SW and HW point of view, but worth solving.

    • Not where I am, if you don't put the can out properly they don't pick it up and you are stuck until next week. People figure it out real quick!

  • Since majority of the people in my apartment complex are STUPID when it comes to the recycling and garbage dumpster (i.e., posted signs routinely ignored), the leasing office hired a contracting firm to have several people sort, breakdown and distribute the contents of each dumpsters in the morning hours. Recyclables go into the recyclables dumpster, garbage into the garbage dumpster, and inappropriate items (i.e., one-gallon bottle of motor oil or piss) are dealt with in an appropriate manner. Looking forw
    • by bmk67 ( 971394 )

      I'd prefer it if they'd figure who the shitbird is who keeps dumping trash in the glass recycling bin and deal with him directly.

      I mean for fuck's sake, the glass bin is *right next to* the the goddamned trash bin.

      I can almost understand the laziness that keep people from sorting thier trash and recyclables, but for the love of Cthulhu, if you're not going to, at least put your goddamned trash in the trash bin so that the rest of us don't have to suffer your stupidity. Seriously, I'm about the laziest pers

      • by creimer ( 824291 )
        My apartment complex has 320 units, 600+ tenants, 20 dumpsters and four homeless scavengers on bicycles. Unless they put video cameras on all the dumpsters, it's very difficult to determine who is doing what with their trash.
  • It could work on my street, mostly. I live on a street with a court and at the end the truck typically has to reverse/forward/reverse/forward to get in a position where the hydraulic lift can pick up my container and get it dumped. There are situations where the containers are not properly positioned (backward, sideways, obstructions, etc) and make it impossible for the truck to get to the container and they guy will actually get out and re-position the container so as to get at it. But since the city is
  • digging ditches for a living. See Bertha Seattle.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    They'll have to call it the UrbanMech...

  • "... or you don't get no spending cash"

    Presumably robots can't talk back anyway.

  • by PPH ( 736903 )

    Now there's no hope of Slashdotters ever getting a date.

    Robot sidles up to some suitably trashy female in a bar: "Say, baby (beep). Do (click, click) you come here often (modem noises)?"

  • by nimbius ( 983462 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:20PM (#50567729) Homepage
    from tfa the mockup shows a typical suburb, but in a city collecting trash is much more complex. offices and apartment complexes often store their dumpsters in the buildings parking garage or in a tight alleyway. garbage trucks cant get to them directly, and so rely on smaller positioning vehicles to take the dumpster to a location the truck can safely reach. on large streets, dumpsters can take up an entire lane of traffic or parking while waiting for a garbage pickup. at the end of the day, positioning vehicles return the dumpster to its original location.
    • Not "might not". Will not, can not, was never going to except in the mind of the idiot who thought it would. And it won't work in suburbs either.

      Any marvelous technology which assumes the world will be redesigned around that marvelous technology is not marvelous technology. It's crap, and will never happen.

      It's a designer or a futurist telling us how they've come up with a really elegant solution, and then complaining the world is too disorganized for your elegant solution to work.

      Now, if we could just c

  • Trash collection is notoriously messy. There are few standards that people have to follow with packing their trash can and place it on the curb. Even if they do follow directions, there are a lot of factors to account for. This is a hard problem for robots, and they're going to get it wrong sometimes. [ohmagif.com] Are they going to include a cleanup robot that will follow the truck and pick up any messes?
  • by vikingpower ( 768921 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:36PM (#50567871) Homepage Journal

    Where I live (a rather affluent suburb of Vienna, Austria) trash collection is done by unskilled, lowly-educated workers who don't have much chance at any other type of job. I would hate to think of these poor people being pushed out of about the only job they could get by... robots.

    There definitely is an ethical side to employing - or not employing - robots. I truly do hope we get that one right, for once.

    • So ... charity?
    • by EvilSS ( 557649 )

      Where I live (a rather affluent suburb of Vienna, Austria) trash collection is done by unskilled, lowly-educated workers who don't have much chance at any other type of job. I would hate to think of these poor people being pushed out of about the only job they could get by... robots.

      There definitely is an ethical side to employing - or not employing - robots. I truly do hope we get that one right, for once.

      Don't worry. If /. has taught us anything, it's that there will be plenty of jobs services those robots to replace the ones they take away.

    • Don't worry, soon enough your job will be outsourced to high productivity systems, robots, etc;
      This change and pace of technological change is inevitable, and is what should really be discussed now while we still have a chance.
      There seems to be this smug self importance to many that post on this site thinking they can't be touched by the oncoming wave.

      They are planning on having computer systems do air traffic control. No that won't remove all the human jobs in that area, but most of them. Pilots?
    • by ibpooks ( 127372 )

      In addition to the parent's point, humans picking up the garbage provides a much better service than the robot trucks. I don't have to worry about fitting everything into the uniform sized plastic bin. I can pile whatever oddly shaped boxes, cans or large items by the road, and the humans can deal with them quickly and efficiently. I don't really care if it makes trash hauling slightly more expensive, it makes my job of taking out the trash much easier. I live in an area where humans pick up the trash,

    • Trash collection is a smell, undesirable job. If you're doing a make-work program, why not make it something pleasant?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 21, 2015 @01:49PM (#50567977)

    The relevant GIF [imgur.com]

    • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

      Thanks that was funny.

    • As funny as that was, the problem there was the homeowner placed the bin facing the wrong way. That's trivially easy for a human to identify and correct, but for an automated system somebody has to think through how to deal with all the permutations of that problem and include a solution in the operation logic.

      • That's trivially easy for a human to identify and correct, but for an automated system somebody has to think through how to deal with all the permutations of that problem and include a solution in the operation logic.
        Circular cans! Who'd da thunk it? A detent to orient the lid.
  • I was shocked to see a garbage truck that had the ability to rip washing machines, mattresses and old cabinets and pull in the shards. It did have human workers but that truck was designed to get rid of anything that a home might have with ease and efficiency.
    • ...but that truck was designed to get rid of anything that a home might have with ease and efficiency.
      Kids, mother-in-law, too many cats next door...
  • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    My city uses prisoners to dump the cans, while a guard of some kind drives the truck. There could be some downsides to this, but it gives the inmates something to do rather than hang around the jail.

    I've lived here for 20 years and have yet to hear about any trying to escape, so there must be a nice incentive to do the job.

  • It's struck me, too, how the trash collection vehicles that come by my house are mostly piloted robots already; the humans are there to deal with problems and control the joysticks, but hydraulic arms lift and empty the garbage containers themselves.

    Piloted robots? You mean machines? By that logic the self-driving car has been here for a century, since you don't have to put your feet through the floor and push.

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