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How Recycling Robots Could Help Us Clean the Planet

Imagine a future where waste-collecting robots will move through air, land, and water, cleaning our environment

2 min read
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:

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/NDTG7yBGN3M&hl=en_US&fs=1& expand=1]


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.

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/c0JY0UZe5jc&hl=en_US&fs=1& expand=1]


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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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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