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.