Now Your Cell Phone Can Take Out the Trash


Recycling takes to the road. Good urban hygiene is a must for any 21st-century city, but it isn’t easy. Enter DustBot—a real-life Wall-E robot that can sniff out garbage, pick it up and drop it off—on its own and by request. These bots can clean streets too narrow for trucks while effortlessly sharing city spaces with pedestrians, but not without some pretty heavy technology. DustBot’s laser scanner and ultrasound sensors provide navigation, and an optical buoy prevents the robot from getting lost. It even has a special algorithm to avoid obstacles—especially good for roaming children and the occasional senior. Make sure to check out DustBot responding to a call in the video above.

As Japan’s laser solution to waste proposes to outfit homes with their own autonomous recycling robots, Italian scientists set their sites outdoors. Coordinated by Italy’s Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna CRIM Lab, the DustBot project has produced several varieties of friendly drones designed to tackle city trash, efficiently replacing cumbersome garbage trucks and inconvenient schedules. Having a thinking trash compactor in your house is helpful, but imagine what a fleet of roaming trash cans can do for the environment—not to mention robotic evolution.

The DustBot has a 70-pound capacity and a lithium battery strong enough for 10 miles of travel. That’s a lot of clean streets. Also, the bot’s versatility allows it to dispose of three types of refuse: organic, recyclable or waste. Once it has the trash, it homes in on the correct dumping spot according to what it collects. Other than sheer convenience, there are benefits. One is less noise. DustBot is far quieter than a dump truck. These robots can also take real-time samples of the air we breathe, measuring pollutants and sending data to the appropriate authorities for analysis. If that’s not enough, these machines respond to individuals. There’s no word as to whether DustBot will climb stairs, but it can be summoned with a cell phone.

If successful, the DustBot project will be the first to throw humans and robots together in sprawling urban centers, ultimately casting a cleaner shadow on the future. But even if robots zooming to rid citizens of their recyclables works in theory, there are a few concerns. There aren’t yet laws to govern the potential malfunctions. Also, autonomous machines could be more prone to vandalism without sufficient surveillance technology. And more surveillance could mean additional legal and legislative considerations. Another concern is privacy. Namely, where your personal information goes once DustBot goes through your garbage; the robot tracks you with a unique ID number and keeps tabs on what you throw away. Still, advancement in robotics promises to make our city streets cleaner in the years to come. See more pics in the photo gallery.

[image credit: Fulvio Paolocci]

I'm a writer, editor, and strategist with 10+ years of experience creating conversations for socially conscious brands. With roots in science, my work draws on diversity, data, and co-design. I'm happiest when helping people collaborate better, or when translating complex ideas for diverse audiences. I've written for Singularity Hub and the U.S. State Department; my work has appeared in Digit...

Follow Christopher: