Nothing ruins a pleasant afternoon stroll down your neighborhood sidewalk or favorite city street like stepping in dog poop. Even if you don’t step in it, having to look down to make sure you’re avoiding it is no fun. And most dog owners have had at least one day when, darn it, they ran out of plastic baggies, or they were simply too tired to clean up after their canine companion.

In an unexpected use of rapidly improving sensors and robots, Dutch entrepreneur Gerben Lievers invented a unique tool to solve all these problems at once: a poop-scooping drone.

The drone has already gone through multiple iterations, each improvement aiming to further perfect the technology so that it leaves streets as poop-free as possible.

The team’s first model, a drone called Watchdog 1, used thermal imaging to locate uncollected dog droppings by their warm temperatures compared to the surrounding area. That data was appended with GPS coordinates and sent to a ground-based robot called Patroldog 1, which rolled off to collect its target.

After trying both a vacuum-type collection mechanism and arms that really did ‘scoop’ the poop, the team decided the vacuum worked better because it can pick up material of various consistencies (ick).

Speaking of which, thermal imaging only identifies waste that is, ahem, fresh. What about the stuff that’s been sitting there for hours or days? It’s equally unpleasant, and should also be banished from sidewalks.

To solve this problem, the team added recognition software to the drone, training it to recognize stale poop from above using images.

Lievers said, “The form and shape may be different with each one, but when you have a database with enough training images it’s possible…It may be that people will need to send us pictures of the poo of their dog in order to train our machines to be better.” If you’re a dog owner and you’ve been wanting to participate in a crowdsourcing project, it sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Before the poop-scooping drone project, Lievers founded Tinki.nl, a website comparing prices of pet accessories. He’s hoping local governments will provide funding for his drone project and neighborhood volunteers will learn to fly the drones (they’re not autonomous yet). Once the operation ramps up, Patroldog 1 will need more storage space, as it currently only holds a couple blocks’ worth of waste.

The team hopes to trial their prototypes in a few poop-problematic neighborhoods by the end of this year. But Lievers said, “A lot of this depends on how the technology can be developed, as well as how willing the government is to take part.”

Could a poop-scooping drone make the problem it’s trying to solve worse? If pet owners know someone else will clean up after their dogs, why make any effort to do so themselves? It’s plausible that, if the drone scales up its coverage, it could have trouble keeping up with the demand it creates.

Whether or not that becomes an issue, the broader consensus is likely this: as long as the poop is off the street, it doesn’t matter who (or what) is picking it up.

Image Credit: Tinki.nl/YouTube

Vanessa is associate editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in renewable energy, health, the developing world, and countless other topics. When she's not reading or writing you can usually find her outdoors, in water, or on a plane.

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