Trash Robots Lead the Way in Cleanup Efforts
We are living in an environmentally conscious time where Sustainability movements are gaining traction and the younger generation is using social engagement to boost awareness and inspire action. We are also living in the age of AI and robotics, watching the world transform around us as huge advances are made in these fields. It only makes sense then, that these two efforts can come together to give us robots that are tasked with cleaning up the environment. Let us take a look at the companies and their robots driving this innovation.
The TrashBot by Urban Rivers
Urban Rivers, a non-profit company made up of ecologists and entrepreneurs, have created a robot to clean up the trash in the Chicago River. This robot is called TrashBot and is essentially a small remote-controlled boat that is used to collect trash and deposit it as specific locations along the river bank, where it can later be collected and sorted.
Part of the appeal of the TrashBot is in the fun and gamified nature of its operation. The TrashBot was designed so that anyone can control the TrashBot via the internet, simply by logging into the device. The ‘player’ can then see through the robot’s eyes and get busy cleaning up any trash that has accumulated in the river since the last player hopped off.
Urban Rivers co-founder Nick Wesley said:
“We really hope that one day, this game is just so boring because there’s no more trash left to clean.”1
Chicago is a bustling city with a population of 2.7 million people2 and a river that is frequently inundated with floating garbage. This trash is both dangerous to local wildlife and also unsavory to residents and tourists that roam the city. Residents of the city arrange frequent cleanup operations in the river whereby people go out on Kayaks and collect trash, or use nets to gather as much trash as possible. Despite these efforts, the trash continues to accumulate, often coming in faster than it can be removed. This is why robots can make a huge difference to the health of our rivers, they require considerably less manpower and organization, and can be utilized as often as needed.
TrashBot by CleanRobotics
The TrashBot by CleanRobotics is an intelligent trash can that utilizes computer vision, machine learning and a multitude of sensors to sort trash. This TrashBot aims to make recycling more effective and efficient, because although most of us do recycle in some form, we’re often not very successful at it. According to an Ipsos Public Affairs study3, 25% of respondents said that they don’t recycle more because there isn’t a convenient recycling plant close to where they live. 10% of respondents reported that recycling is too time consuming, and another 10% said they just forget to do it.
Even when the effort is made to recycle, people can make errors leading to contamination. According to the New York Times, approximately 25% of recycling has to be sent to landfills because it is too contaiminated4. The TrashBot is tasked with solving these problems. People can simply place their trash in the opening of the TrashBot, and it will use its advanced camera and sensor technology to analyze the trash, weigh it, drain any liquids, and then sort it into the correct bin5.
Max the Robot
Max is a robot created by US company Bulk Handling Systems and lives at a recycling plant called Green Recycling in Essex, UK. Much like CleanRobotics’ TrashBot, Max is tasked with sorting through trash to separate recycling material from landfill waste, only on a much bigger scale. While CleanRobotics’ TrashBot is a small recycling robot that can be placed in public areas, Max sorts trash that has already made its way to the recycling center and may have been incorrectly discarded.
Max was created using deep learning technology and trained to identify objects based on their visual and physical properties, even when it hasn’t seen the object before. There are many benefits to Max over a human operator. Max can work faster, doesn’t need to take frequent breaks, and can eliminate human error in the sorting process6.
Daisy by Apple
Tech giant Apple is no stranger to adopting the latest tech and putting its own sleek spin on it. In April 2018 Apple debuted Daisy7, an iPhone disassembling robot. This 33-foot-long robot has five arms and pulls apart iPhones to recycle their parts. Discarded electrical devices are one of the world’s fastest-growing waste problems, with these devices often ending up in landfills and leaking toxic materials.
According to a study by United Nations University, 43 million tons of electronic waste was produced in 20168. This is a significant environmental issue, and as one of the world’s largest electronic device manufacturers, Apple and the iPhone are key players is this problem. Daisy is Apple’s solution to the problem. Daisy is capable of disassembling 200 iPhones an hour and is proving to be very effective. According to Apple, Daisy recovers 1,900Kgs of Aluminum, 7.5Kgs of Silver, 710Kgs of Copper, and 0.97Kgs of gold per 100,000 iPhones.
Looking to the Future
Although these trash collecting-and-sorting robots are making a difference in cleaning up our waterways and improving the efficiency of our recycling, there’s still some way to go. One of the primary problems is still contamination. Although robots can help remove contaminants in our waste management plants, some contamination will always be an issue. This is a human problem, that needs a human solution. The problem is multi-faceted. Different areas can have wildly different rules on recycling and how to recycle, this leads to confusion and contaminated waste that can end up in landfill despite the robot’s best efforts.
We are still producing products with a range of different plastics and other materials, some of which cannot be easily recycled by the plants they end up at. Instead of viewing these robots as a way to deal with our waste so we don’t have to, we need to take a more collaborative and symbiotic approach. If we reduce the number of materials we use, restricting components to a limited number of recyclable plastics, we can make trash sorting robots more efficient and take the pressure off the environment.
Despite these limitations, as we progress into the future and machine learning technology continues to advance, we can expect to see more of these robots cleaning up our rivers, parks, waste management facilities, and oceans. According to Energias Market Research the global trash robots’ market is expected to witness a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.5% by 2024. The reason for this predicted growth is considered to be the growth of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, the potential of reducing manufacturing costs, and the growing concern about waste management9.