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Sunday, 20 September 2015





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A new way to handle garbage

No one likes to handle waste or garbage. That is human nature. But someone has to collect garbage and empty it into a tractor, truck or compactor. So far, this is being done by garbage collectors some of whom wear gloves. If a team of international researchers succeed in their efforts, robots could soon be doing this menial and unenviable work.

The Volvo Group is currently working on a joint venture together with Chalmers University of Technology and Mälardalen University in Sweden, Penn State University in the United States, and the waste recycling company Renova, to develop a robot that interacts with the refuse truck and its driver to accomplish the work.


The three universities are part of Volvo Group's Academic Partner Program, a network of twelve academic partners collaborating with Volvo for long-term cooperation in research and recruitment. The students have different tasks and roles. Mälardalens University will design the robot itself. At Chalmers University, students will work on the overall operating system. At Penn State´s Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute the graphics, communication systems and control panel for the truck driver will be developed. The project is called ROAR, for Robot-based Autonomous Refuse handling, and the goal is to introduce a robot that, with the help of instructions from a truck's operating system, can collect refuse bins in a neighbourhood, bring them to a refuse truck and empty them. All of this occurs under the supervision of the refuse truck's driver.

In cases where more personnel are separately employed to collect the garbage, the robots will make them redundant since only the driver is needed for this operation. This work will continue until June 2016, when the technology will be tested on a refuse collection vehicle developed by Renova and Volvo.


As the news release from Swedish truck maker Volvo puts it: "Imagine a robot that quietly and discreetly enters your neighbourhood, collects your refuse bin and empties it into the refuse truck. It is done without waking the sleeping families and without heavy lifting for the refuse truck's driver. This is the purpose of ROAR, a joint project with the aim to develop tomorrow's smart transport solutions."

Automated refuse collection.                                                              Pic courtesy:

Volvo envisions this venture as just one manifestation of "a future with more automation," according to project leader Per-Lage Götvall, who also says that it will provide "a way to stretch the imagination and test new concepts to shape transport solutions for tomorrow."

The purpose of ROAR is also to demonstrate how we, in the very near future, will use smart machines to assist with a broad range of activities in society. This technology can be applied in many areas. Automated refuse collection is just one example.


There are many advantages of this robotic project. Robots will never get tired or sleepy, so they can work any time of the day or night. Again, their 'working hours' will be restricted only by the ability of the human driver to keep up. They do not have to be paid at all. They will be able to work in any environment, rain or shine, and to work with hazardous materials too. They will not mind the stench. They will not (hopefully) miss a single address on the route. Eventually, they will be able to tell the difference between food waste, plastics, metals etc through a colour coding scheme.

On the other hand, the project is a very challenging one because refuse collection is still seen as a labour intensive job and human handlers may not like to give up their jobs to robots. Some drivers may also detest the fact that they have to work alone with a bunch of robots. House owners in turn may bemoan the lack of human interaction - it is easy to complain or raise your concerns to a human garbage handler, rather than to a mechanical robot.

Municipal authorities the world over will continue to study Volvo's project in earnest and several other developments now underway ideally complement its efforts. For instance, Cisco reports that Cincinnati reduced residential waste by 17 percent, and recycling volume swelled by 49 percent with real-time data about the waste stream.


Researchers are also developing garbage receptacles that can immediately notify herbage vehicle operators when they are full. At some point in the future, the garbage truck itself could be autonomous, leading to a three way communication network among the truck, sensor-equipped bins and the garbage collecting robot. They will be able to do their respective jobs with little or no human intervention.

Households will be able to monitor the process via their smartphones and even schedule a pick up at another time. A US waste company has already announced plans to launch a smartphone app that allows users to call for a rubbish collection, the same way they might schedule a taxi. Moreover, the garbage truck can be powered by electric batteries, turbine or hydrogen fuel cells, which will minimize pollution. A trash truck burns 14,000 gallons of fuel annually - 60 percent of which could be saved with an electric battery power solution or an electric turbine. In fact, Tesla co-founder and CEO of Wrightspeed Inc Ian Wright is already testing an 80-kilowatt generator with a 10,000-hour life especially built for trash trucks.

Robots are ideally suited to handle tasks that are either too dangerous or too revolting for us, from demining to taking the trash. Vacuuming robots such as Roomba are already available in the market. You can buy 10 normal manually operated vacuum cleaners for around the same amount of money, but no manual vacuum cleaner can beat the sheer spectacle of a robotic vacuum cleaner going around a room on its own, cleaning up and even recharging without any human intervention.

They will become cheaper in the next five years or so. Household robots (which may or may not look like humans) will be commonplace in around 20 years if present trends continue. These are exciting technologies that can create a difference in our everyday lives in the near future.


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