Automate the Freight: The Robotic Garbage Man

When I started the Automate the Freight series, my argument was that long before the vaunted day when we’ll be able to kick back and read the news or play a video game while our fully autonomous car whisks us to work, economic forces will dictate that automation will have already penetrated the supply chain. There’s much more money to be saved by carriers like FedEx and UPS cutting humans out of the loop while delivering parcels to homes and businesses than there is for car companies to make by peddling the comfort and convenience of driverless commuting.

But the other end of the supply chain is ripe for automation, too. For every smile-adorned Amazon package delivered, a whole bunch of waste needs to be toted away. Bag after bag of garbage needs to go somewhere else, and at least in the USA, municipalities are usually on the hook for the often nasty job, sometimes maintaining fleets of purpose-built trucks and employing squads of workers to make weekly pickups, or perhaps farming the work out to local contractors.

Either way you slice it, the costs for trash removal fall on the taxpayers, and as cities and towns look for ways to stretch those levies even further, there’s little doubt that automation of the waste stream will start to become more and more attractive. But what will it take to fully automate the waste removal process? And how long before the “garbage man” becomes the “garbage ‘bot”?

Unsurprisingly, the answer depends on where you live and what technology is currently in place. In a lot of North America, the traditional early morning symphony of multiple sanitation workers dragging cans across the street and emptying them into a truck as loudly as possible are long gone. Now, an automated side loader (ASL) truck can grapple a wheeled tote with a hydraulic arm and empty it into a hopper on top of the truck. It’s marginally quieter, but the huge advantage is the reduction in workforce — the driver can operate the whole rig — and the elimination of injuries from repeated heavy lifting, since the driver never leaves the cab.

ASLs are perfected suited for fully autonomous operation. The side-loading arm already has a camera mounted on it to assist the driver in lining up on the target, and adding image analysis to identify carts wouldn’t be much of a chore. The system would need to make sure the cart is properly oriented and within reach of the arm, and in locations with curbside recycling where carts are also used for recyclables, the system would have to discern between the two. The truck’s sensor system would want to watch for obstructions and bystanders, too — I’m always impressed when my wife and I happen to pass by our garbage man on our morning walks; he always defers dumping a cart until we pass by lest something fall on us. It’d probably be prudent to program such behavior into a robotic garbage truck, as well as provide sensors for detecting any unintended messes to be tidied up later.

In places where ASLs are not in use, there’s still ample opportunity to automate the waste pickup process. Volvo is testing a semi-automated garbage truck that drives itself but still requires a human operator to tend to the carts. In the video below, the operator walks along as the rear-loading truck drives the route; he rolls carts from the curb to the lifting mechanism on the truck and replaces the cart when the trash is dumped. I have to be honest and say I don’t get this; the only benefit is that the driver no longer has to continually mount and dismount the truck. It appears to be an intermediate step to a system where small robots fetch the carts to the truck. It seems needlessly complicated until you consider the space constraints presented by dense suburban and urban neighborhoods, in which case it might just make sense.

Are there other obstacles to fully-autonomous garbage pickups? Plenty, not least being the deployment of a self-driving platform that can be relied on to perform safely in an often chaotic environment. But if you think about it, a truck on a fixed route for pickups has a somewhat easier task laid out for it than a self-driving passenger car which could be asked to take passengers almost anywhere. An autonomous garbage truck even has an advantage over robotic deliveries that need to cover the last 100′ from the road to the doorstep; no need to navigate potentially obstacle-filled walks and lawns when the entire transaction takes place curbside.

As with autonomous deliveries, robotic garbage pickup will be driven by economic factors, primarily savings realized by taking fragile and expensive humans out of the loop. There will be pushback for sure, especially from politically powerful public-sector unions, so I’d expect that automated parcel deliveries by private corporations will probably happen before municipal services are automated. But if there’s a buck to be saved, cities and towns will have little choice but to automate such services in the long run.

48 thoughts on “Automate the Freight: The Robotic Garbage Man

  1. “…employ squads of worders …”.
    Thats the point. And where will you find money to give this now-unemployed workers ? Automating things is nice, from a technical point of view.
    But from a practical point, this is the kind of work someone without study, or who needs a second job, or whatever, can easly do. You automate all of it, and all this people will be without jobs and needing to receive government help. So, not much gain.

    Also, don´t know in other places, but here the municipality charges a “trash tax” from homeowners, so it is mostly people who product trash that pay for the service.

    1. That is a true point, but with this argument you can argue against every progress that is made. Should we switch than back to phone operators or mine coal by hand because therefor more human workforce is needed?

      And if homeowners pay for this service, they propably want to reduce the the cost.

      1. Not necessarily. Most of the “it´s for the childern”-type arguments just play with sentimental situations to force someone to accept something. The phone operators ? From what I know, it was a small number of people working on it. The coal miners ? Well, I that would be worth the discussion, because there were a lot of jobs in it.
        Again, the point is that while it is nice to automate all things, that reduces too much the number of jobs to “unqualified” people ( not only them, but you get the idea ) .Then, these people will not be able to get new jobs in tne “new economy”, the least of reasons that there are not enough jobs in it, or that there are not enough places in schools to teach these people to do those new jobs.

        Now, administratively speaking, couple that with the crescent immigration to some places, and the reduction in the infant mortality, and you get more people, less jobs, then smaller wages, more poor people, etc.

    2. The beauty of captialism is that it’s not the problem of the business. That’s a governement issue to deal with.
      Meanwhile profits are up and the share price is looking excellent. I’ll take a big fat bonus for saving the company lots of money.

      1. Am I the only one who finds it weird that people get bonuses (costing the company more money) for saving the company (hopefully a larger sum of) money. If they were really interested in saving money shouldn’t they start with the exorbitant bonuses, salaries and golden parachutes at the top of the corporate structure?

    3. “You automate all of it, and all this people will be without jobs and needing to receive government help.”

      A future where people aren’t relegated to doing mindless work but can enjoy themselves instead? Oh the horror! -_-

          1. In the struggle between haves and have-nots, the have-nots are losing and the haves resent having to help out the have-nots. Socialism vs Social-Darwism.

      1. “mindless” work is subjective. A geek thinks playing with toy robots(really RC toys)is meaningful, To most people, it’s just a adult male acting like a child.

        By all means throw most people out a job and give them subsistence stipend from the state and stuff them in low income apartments like so many insects. You know what most people do in that situation since you just destroyed their life and possibility for growth? They take to drugs and crime.

  2. ASLs aren’t quite here, but the current process is semi-automated since not everything ends up in a tote. e.g. too much, can’t fit in, etc. Also it’s kind of funny when labor is considered expensive when most salaries are near the economic bottom. If people are really concerned about expensive, why not automate near the other end, or is that considered hitting too close to home?

    1. Spot on. I notice all the rage is to low wage jobs not the high end jobs where all the bloat and incompetence is.

      Automate at the top end – IT and engineers. Or simply replace them with low cost imports from Asia. You don’t need to pay IT types a $30 a hr when a IT person in Bombay can do for $7. Same with coders.

      Most tech companies BTW have figured that out. Off-shore the white collars and techies and save a boatload of money.

      1. Just an FYI, but in the Kansas City Market I make ~$65/hr as a contractor all day long. Granted, I am at the top end of the software development curve, and have recently started my own business for $150/hr. But still, your idea of the wage at the “top end” is not based in fact.

        Also, I get paid loads to come in and make all that broken code from off-shore (think of the broken the English, yeah same quality code) actually compile and do something. They pay me as much, if not more, than they paid the entire off-shore team by the time it is all said and done. And they still haven’t realized ~50% of the original dream of their code. Businesses have wised up to that racket, believe it.

        As for the automation piece, I actually agree that a lot of my job can be automated. I fully expect in 10-20 years most of my field will be done so, at enormous savings to companies. I’m okay with that, because someone has to fix it and yet more will be needed to work on whatever other new thing they need skilled people.for.

        If you refuse to learn a new skill then yeah you are stuck on the welfare teat (and I grew up in a family on welfare for a while, I know both ends of the spectrum). But that’s your problem and totally your fault if you live that way. The internet has made people liable for their own lot in life since they can, quite cheaply, learn to do anything well enough to get an entry level job. From there it’s up to you to earn a place at the table with the grown-ups (in your new field).

        1. “If you refuse to learn a new skill then yeah you are stuck on the welfare teat. But that’s your problem and totally your fault if you live that way. The internet has made people liable for their own lot in life since they can, quite cheaply, learn to do anything well enough to get an entry level job. From there it’s up to you to earn a place at the table with the grown-ups (in your new field).” – This is such an elitist mindset. Not everyone are capable of learning and adapting so quickly and especially without a solid educational background.

          1. That is a realistic attitude. Here’s what you said to someone who hires and fires people as part of my regular duties: blah blah blah, some excuses for not doing something I could and probably should have.

            You don’t need anything you’re not already born with to do something in life. All that PC horse-crap they sell you is worth exactly how much you paid for it: nothing. I know HaD is a PC safe space and all, but I offer you reality in this as a guy who has lived for extended periods in the projects of a city and the “affluent” neighborhood both.

            I spent years doing construction and temporary labor work and then spent 2 years in a community college (4 whopping semesters while I worked full time over the night shift at a factory – at 26 years old). It took nothing special outside of willingness to actually work a dirty job I couldn’t stand for it. I could and would do it again if my field died tomorrow, to put food on the table. To whit: I hired a guy in his late 50’s about a year ago. He had 3 (yes only three) years experience in my field.

            Besides yourself, and God if you swing that way, absolutely nobody else in life cares about you or what you do or don’t with your life unless they’re up for election (and then only until the election). Do what you want with your life but don’t give me excuses, and we both know they are exactly that. I really don’t care either way, unless you’re paying me to.

          2. No Tim, you don’t understand. Adrenaline Junkie did it, therefore anyone can. Everyone has exactly the same intelligence, health, choice of their own DNA sequence, cultural background, and other constraints.

            Luck plays no part whatsoever, anyone who says it does is just lying! Every person in the world can and should be a software engineering manager just like AJ!

          1. There are always entry level jobs. The definition of what particular job is entry level changes with time. But there is always a bottom job on the ladder that doesn’t require much to get into. Otherwise nobody would have a job.

        2. that’s not a realistic attitude its a dismissive and even out right malevolent one.

          well Ebenezer the point of the story was man kind is your business for many reasons. one seldom talked about is the fact is when you throw large groups they tend to mad and take it out on you. you should start caring about other show they start caring about your well being too.

  3. Not sure how it is in other areas with ASL, but our County switched over a couple of years ago to ASL trucks , for both recycle (18 Gal bins) trash (the “standard” roll can). We were under the old system for 10 years and used the same trash can & recycle bins (I bought extra). Since the switch they have had to replace our trash can twice due to damage from the ASL, and we lost 3 of the 4 recycle bins for the same reason.(which they refuse to replace because I did not buy from them). Several of my neighbors have had similar issues. So it might be cheaper in manpower.. but I wonder how much replacement garbage cans are costing them.

    1. I’ve been tempted to add a device to record the accelerations those trucks put on the bins. I think there’s enough capability they could pick up a bin that’s filled with concrete but they are run open loop. The worst seems to be diagonal crushing and angular accelerations.

    2. It sounds like you’re producing a hell of a lot of rubbish!

      Also that must be a shitty bin your town is using. I’ve had these automatic truck type bins for most of my life and only ever seen problems with the lids failing at the hinges, or gross abuse (vandalism/car impact).

  4. The frustrating thing about the ASL is that it has such a wide grip that the drivers want the recycling bin on the opposite side of the driveway from the trash bin so they have enough room to grab one without hitting the other. The huge size of the bins ends up blocking more of the driveway this way, especially when there’s snow in the yard and you can’t put the bins there. I end up needing to shovel a spot of yard to put the cans on.

    But yes, in general this is a sweet spot for automation. Not only the lack of having to go the last 100 feet to the door, but also the mapping of routes that will be run every week.

    1. All (well, most of) the cans in Portland,OR have a metal lift bar built into the front, and even our own hauler who doesn’t have the full automation just manually wrangles the can up to the lift hook and lets it fly. As far as I know, WM in my parent’s area a few miles away uses a fully automated lift arm that grabs that hook, which means there’s no massive “grabber” involved, and the concerns about can spacing are just not there.

  5. {aside:}
    Our ASL trucks also record video. If a customer complains the truck missed their pickup, they can review the video to see if the customer actually had the bin at the curb when the truck arrived.

  6. The beauty of this idea is it doesn’t have to be a mammoth sized truck. There could be a swarm of autonomous vehicles about the size of a Kei truck. Intelligent bins could signal their need to be emptied. There would be no need for a routine weekly collection.

    1. An automated bin that moves itself to a **nearby** collection point would be feasible, but a mass migration of bins is vastly less energy efficient than collection.

      The mental image is amusing though!

  7. My city went to als for recycling…
    Someone somewhere forgot the logistics of driving a large vehicle down allys… there are a lot of ally’s they can’t get in and out of without Austin powering around the corners and they won’t even go down them now if they are icy, which they often are in the winter since the city doesn’t plow them.
    I too am pretty amazed at how hard the grapple is on the can. Also, they are often not slow enough to allow all the contents to leave the bin while upside down…
    But, I guess, that’s progress.

  8. I’ve never seen automated or assisted garbage systems (ASL) here in switzerland. Quite interesting that in a country known for very high wages and general costs, a garbage truck with a driver and two loaders on the back is not replaced by a more efficient system. On the other hand, we pay for our garbage collection individually, either by garbage bag volume with mandatory “garbage-stickers” or by the volume of the container with a yearly fee. Could be that we just happilly pay so much for our garbage to be picked up that it never occured to anyone that the collection system has a lot of opportunities to be optimized and made more cost efficient. Or is it in the end really cheaper to have some human operators on site that can deal with every possible problem, compared to a very expensive robot that fails at least once on every garbage run because of some unforseen event and needs help by a human to get back to work?

  9. I actually agree with the concept. In the mid-’90’s I suggested that each city block had its own robot squad of small, specialized robots to clean the public areas and recycle the recyclables. Even in 1994 the technology was there to create small ShopVac-sized ‘bots with Neural Nets capable of recognizing different types of trash and controlling manipulators capable of picking it up, temporarily storing it, and then emptying it to larger bins when the storage became full.

    Today I would modify my proposals in two ways: First, I would try to emulate or improve on Sweden’s recycling efforts https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/sweden-s-recycling-is-so-revolutionary-the-country-has-run-out-of-rubbish-a7462976.html , and, Second, I would emphasize the “Cradle-to-Cradle” approach to “No-Waste” manufacturing of new products https://www.amazon.com/Cradle-Remaking-Way-Make-Things/dp/0865475873 .

    Back in the ’70’s I read an article by Isaac Asimov where he predicted that we would end up building robots that would mine our landfills and waste areas to recover usable minerals and other elements that became short in supply. I would build on that idea by building robots that would clean up the massive amount of waste products and toxic chemicals. How big an effort would it be to clean the plastics out of our oceans? MASSIVE! Take the unskilled labor sidelined by the wastebots and skill them in recovery operations. Perhaps the stuff we recovered would pay for the labor costs, and society benefits by having a cleaner planet.

  10. All the technology to 100% recycle DWS (Domestic Waste Stream) has existed since the early 1990’s, and do it without any pre-separation of materials. Various pieces have been implemented here and there, but nobody has put it all together in one processing plant.

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