The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

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 https://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 https://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.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
Horizontal
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less