Even the trash goes to the robots

This week the biggest story in the robotic world was not Donald Trump’s misogyny, but Professors Kathleen Richardson’s and Erik Billing’s ban on sex robots. The academics claim that such robots “reinforces or reproduces existing gender inequalities.” As the most popular sci-fi movies, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina, have revolved around this fantasy it could be that Richardson and Billing are focusing too much of their endeavors on banning machines vs. educating men.

volco trash

The concept of filthy robots made news in another sense this week with Volvo’s press release about the new joint venture for the development of autonomous trash-collecting robots. These two-wheeled bots — who in their present conceptual stage look like cousins of Disney’s Wall-E — will “collect your refuse bin and empty it into the refuse truck … without waking the sleeping families and without heavy lifting for the refuse truck’s driver,” says the Swedish company.

The Robot-based Autonomous Refuse handling (ROAR) project is already underway and involves collaboration with waste recycling firm Renova and three universities. In Sweden, Chalmers University of Technology is responsible for developing the software and Mälardalen University is handling the hardware. Over in the United States, Penn State University will take care of the communication system between the ROAR drones and the refuse truck driver — because, while autonomous to an extent, the robots will still be very much under the driver’s control.

Volvo envisions this venture as just one manifestation of “a future with more automation,” accoording 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.” Thanks to the instrumental involvement of academic institutions and Volvo’s own emphasis on entrusting students with the key developmental tasks, the project should help propel research and education, if nothing else. And there are actually plans to put these partially autonomous trash collectors into action: Renova says the technology will be tested on a vehicle it is developing for this purpose in the summer of 2016.

In researching this post, I came across an existing garbage collecting robot called DustBot. According to the DustBot website, the project is aimed at “designing, developing, testing and demonstrating a system for improving the management of urban hygiene based on a network of autonomous and cooperating robots, embedded in an ambient intelligence infrastructure.”

Dustbot raised $3.9 million and operated autonomously in a small Italian village. It was part of a project by the Robotics Department at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna University, however it does not appear that it has been active since 2011. Looking at the mockups by Volvo above, it is curious to note that the car manufacturer appears to be picking up where the DustBot researchers left off, even the same WALL-E inspired design.

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