How Recycling Robots Could Help Us Clean the Planet


Dustbot, a garbage-collecting robot created by the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna's CRIM Lab.
Photo: Massimo Brega

At the current rate of global population growth and consumption of resources, it appears clear to me where we're going to end: in a waste-covered Earth like that depicted in the movie WALL-E.

Needless to say recycling is one of the most important things we can do to keep our planet sustainable. I think it won't be long until governments all over the world create all kinds of incentives to improve recycling.

Which brings us to ... robots!

Recycling is a very promising area for robotics. Over the next few decades I imagine a future where waste-collecting robots will be moving through air, land, and water, reaching difficult areas to help us cleaning our environment. Picture WALL-E but before the whole planet becomes a landfill.

In fact, there are already some recycling bot prototypes roaming around. One example is Dustbot, a robot developed at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna's CRIM Lab, in Pisa, Italy. Led by Prof. Paolo Dario, the laboratory created a robot designed specifically to collect garbage at people's homes.

It's 1.5 meter tall, weighs 70 kilograms and can carry 80 liters or 30 kg of payload. The robot can travel at 1 meter per second and its battery gives it 16 kilometers of autonomy.


Photo: Massimo Brega

Accordingly to this BBC story the Dustbot can be summoned to your address through a mobile phone at any time of the day. Basically the machine -- built using a Segway Robot Mobility Platform -- uses a GPS system and motion sensors to drive around the city and show up at your doorstep.

Once it arrives, the user just selects the type of garbage he wants to dispose using a touch screen. A compartment opens on the robot's belly where the user places the garbage, which is them transported to a drop-off location.

The robot's greatest advantage is its size: it can navigate through narrow streets and alleys where normal garbage trucks can't go.

Here's a video showing how Dustbot -- and its "siblings" DustCart and DustClean robots -- work:


Another example is Push, a robot that patrols the streets of Disney World, asking people to feed it with rubbish. Well, it's not exactly a robot -- it's a remote-controlled garbage can. An operator drives it through the crowd, using a speaker system to talk to people, persuading them to recycle their garbage.

Watch it in action in the video below.


It's not WALL-E, but it's funny and efficient, and if it could be made truly autonomous, this simple robot -- along with an army of Dustbots and similar machines -- would be a powerful way of keeping the streets, and hopefully the planet, a bit cleaner.

Do you know of other recycling robots? Let us know.

UPDATED 04/22/10: Dustbot specs added.

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