Volvo Takes the Right First Step in Autonomous Garbage Collection

The right front corner of a yellow garbage truck. A metallic lidar cylinder sticks out at the corner. A man in neon yellow stands in the background.
Photo: Volvo Trucks

In September of 2015, Volvo announced that it was developing a robot designed to pick up trash bins and take them to a garbage truck. We were a little bit skeptical of that particular approach to the problem, but it's not the only angle that Volvo is taking towards autonomous refuse handling. Volvo Trucks has been testing a self-driving garbage truck in Sweden, designed to help humans do this dirty job more safely and more efficiently. It's not as slick as a team of little mobile robots that can pick up bins all by themselves, but it's a much more practical near-term solution towards solving the larger problem.

As far as vehicle autonomy goes, this is not a terribly difficult problem. The entire route is mapped in advance, so the truck knows where it is at all times. The general bin locations are mapped as well. Lidar at each corner gives the truck excellent situational awareness, and my guess is that the system doesn't give two hoots whether it's traveling forwards or backwards. Everything is done at very low speed, there's always a human paying close attention, and my guess is that the human has wireless e-stop very close to hand. 

Even though the autonomy problem is not that difficult, it's taking over from a human driver for whom doing all of this stuff is (I would imagine) often stressful. Navigating a large vehicle around tight urban and suburban streets while driving backwards is tricky even with practice, and there are severe limits on what the driver is able to see, even if the vehicle is outfitted with rear cameras. Simply put, this particular task is one where an autonomous system seems like most of the time it can perform better than even an experienced human, and it’s one where there are plenty of ways for the system to safely fail, whether by coming to an immediate stop or handing control back to the attending human. This is not the case for most consumer vehicle autonomy, where ways of failing safely may not exist. I like Volvo's approach here— they're letting the vehicle autonomously do what the vehicle is good at doing autonomously, nothing less, and nothing more.

But what about the human driver? It's certainly possible to look at this system and see a job being taken over by automation, and that may in fact be what's happening. If you needed a permanent driver before, you don't now, since (as in the video) a single human worker can now efficiently perform the entire garbage collection task. So, maybe you have the driver collecting bins on the other side of the street, making the process twice as fast, and reducing the amount of work hours available. This all sounds bad for humans workers, but it's important to keep a couple things in mind: First, this assumes that there are enough people who want to fill the available trash collection jobs, which may not be the case. And second, trash collection is very hazardous for humans. Having to repeatedly climb in and out of the cab to move the truck leads to knee injuries, and reducing the necessity to do this is a positive thing for any humans involved.

Volvo plans on continuing this project (in partnership with Swedish waste management company Renova) until the end of 2017, at which point there will be “an extremely thorough evaluation of functionality, safety and, not least, how well this type of vehicle is accepted by drivers, other road users and local residents.” 

Regarding Volvo's long term vision of using little robots to pick up bins and bring them to the truck, we're still somewhat skeptical, but I'd like to share a comment that Sean Brennan from Pennsylvania State University (a collaborator on that project) left on our original post, explaining why mobile robotic trash collectors are not necessarily a crazy idea:

In much of Europe, there's no curb-side pick up nor any way to do this easily. The area between the house and the street is often entirely sidewalk and/or bike paths, particularly in cities and suburbs. There is a huge market where nearly all trash collection requires retrieval of a bin down some alley far from the roadside. And the same is becoming true in big cities in the US where curb-side land is at a premium.

When we talked with Swedish trash haulers union, they could not recall any who had ever retired due to age; their job is so hard that they can guarantee that a back, leg, or arm injury will end their career (and often their life thereafter). It is this type of pain and difficulty that we are trying to solve.

You can read more about Volvo and Penn State's RObot-based Autonomous Refuse handling project here.

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