Smart Garbage Trucks Help With Street Maintenance

If you’ve ever had trouble with a footpath, bus stop, or other piece of urban infrastructure, you probably know the hassles of dealing with a local council. It can be incredibly difficult just to track down the right avenue to report issues, let alone get them sorted in a timely fashion.

In the suburban streets of one Australian city, though, that’s changing somewhat. New smart garbage trucks are becoming instruments of infrastructure surveillance, serving a dual purpose that could reshape urban management. Naturally, though, this new technology raises issues around ethics and privacy.

Trucks With Eyes

One of the garbage trucks operating in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Credit: Swinburne University, Brimbank City Council

The new technology is known as the Mobile IoT-RoadBot. It’s the kind of buzzword soup that could only be cooked up by committee. Thus, it’s no surprise that the project was a collaborative effort between Swinburne University and Brimbank City Council. At the heart of this system are high-resolution cameras affixed to garbage trucks. As these vehicles traverse the city, they  continuously stream video data of their surroundings. This data is then subjected to analysis by AI algorithms, designed to detect and identify anomalies like damaged road signs and battered bus shelters.

During a two-week trial in Melbourne’s western suburbs, the system transmitted video data over the 5G mobile network. Realistically, though, the project would function just fine with lesser infrastructure, too. Over a 9 hour shift, a single truck would stream roughly 5 GB of data, a rate that even 3G cellular networks could readily achieve. The fleet of 11 trucks covered a roughly 123 square-kilometer area during the period of the trial.

The key value of this technology is that it gives Brimbank City Council a continuously-updated picture of the state of its physical infrastructure. Instead of waiting for reports from aggrieved residents, it regularly gets updates as to the state of the city every time a garbage truck heads out on its route. The system is capable of automatically identifying the location of damaged assets in need of repair. It’s easy to imagine the system being set up to automatically task maintenance teams to tackle problems as they arise.

There’s an undeniable efficiency in leveraging garbage trucks, which are already navigating the streets, thereby eliminating the need for dedicated inspection teams. I This not only streamlines the process but reduces redundancy. Moreover, with the immediacy of real-time data analysis, issues are addressed faster, ensuring swift and efficient upkeep of the city’s infrastructure. This offers the opportunity to solve issues before they are even raised by locals irate about their crumbling playground or missing bus stop. Plus, from a financial perspective, less reliance on inspection crews equates to tangible savings, making the entire process more cost-effective.

I Love Big Brother

Yet, for all its merits, the technology doesn’t come without concerns. Central to these apprehensions is the phenomenon of ‘scope creep,’ where data is used beyond its initial intended purpose. As these omnipresent cameras capture everything in their vicinity, they unintentionally amass data, such as vehicle number plates or images of unsuspecting pedestrians. This data, once captured, is ripe for the picking. Just as authorities have leapt on Ring cameras and other home cameras as a source of intelligence, it’s easy to assume the same would be true here.

Regular trash pickups provide a neat opportunity for councils to conduct regular inspections of city infrastructure. Credit: Swinburne University, Brimbank City Council

That could be a bridge too far for some. By and large, humans in the developed world have become used to ever-present surveillance in public spaces, such as supermarkets, shopping malls, and public parks. Having  surveillance cameras regularly running through residential neighbourhoods is another thing entirely. Many would prefer their activities at home go uncaptured, even from the street. At the same time, someone with a lost pet or stolen bike might be champing at the bit to use the footage for their own benefit. The positive use cases are as numerous as the negative ones. The problem is, once the technology is implemented and the data is captured, the genie is out of the bottle. The data will be used as authorities decide is appropriate. That’s seldom in line with any one individual’s opinion of what’s right.

The research paper considers this factor, and lays out a deep and rich framework for ethical use of AI. It’s valuable work, though as always, is subject to human foibles. As much as a system’s designers might aim to avoid scope creep and misuse of their technology, and even codify those aims on paper, ultimately, humans will do what humans will do.

In conclusion, the project shows the potential of simple machine learning systems to automate humdrum everyday tasks. It’s easy to see that any council would appreciate the value of such a system.  However, it also serves as a potent reminder of the need to tread carefully, ensuring that in our quest for government efficiency, we don’t compromise on ethics or privacy. Whether any local government can claim to achieve that is yet to be seen.

42 thoughts on “Smart Garbage Trucks Help With Street Maintenance

        1. That depends on the dashcam ;)
          Anyway, streaming over 5G seems unnecessary, why would you want to parse this data realtime? It could just as well be done via wifi on where the trucks are parked.
          Where I live, we have a different approach, it’s an app that people use to report issues with the pavement, trash, city lighting, etc. With the report you send the gps location and some photo’s. Council picks it up and keeps you informed about progress. This system has many advantages, cheap, scalable, citizens are involved in the solution, because they are motivated that the problem is fixed, easy data for progress monitoring and overall reports, etc.

  1. “Naturally, though, this new technology raises issues around ethics and privacy.”

    I’m sure there’s a reason it’s called, and treated like a public space. Anyway where was all this concern for ethics and privacy when Google started mapping in May 25, 2007 and Microsoft in July 24, 2005?

    1. The difference is that the data collected by Google and MS are updated every few years, or a few times per year, and the garbage trucks scan the entire city more than once per week. Google and MS get a snapshot of the city, the dump truck get a stream…

          1. Also, while filming in public might be legal, publishing the pictures without the consent of the people being filmed (or of their property etc.) is usually required.

          2. The issue is that because Google is mass-photographing everything indiscriminately, they will inevitably film something that is not supposed to be filmed. It’s your responsibility to figure out whether you’re allowed to film X before you do, and you don’t have excuses like finding a gap in a fence where the view is technically “in public” although not meant to be. Street View will catch that gap automatically, and photos from different angles can be used to “scan” what’s behind the fence.

            In Google’s case they don’t ask and expect you to file a complaint afterwards, which means permitting Google to film in this way is allowing them to break the law by default and then say “sorry”, but only if someone finds out. Nobody knows what data they have and how they’re using it, or who they’re giving it to.

          3. There is a fine line between peeping and flashing.

            If you stand in front of an uncurtained window with you pud out, you are flashing in public. You’ll go to jail and end up on a bad list.

            Very few car roofs are higher then my head, If I can see it walking down the road it’s not private. Don’t want people looking in your yard? Better fix that fence gap. Until you do, your yard is PUBLIC.
            Most urban back yards are not private. Wander around your backyard naked, you’ll find out.
            Does not apply in Germany, where it’s always best to wear blinders. The people you’ll see naked are not the ones you want to see naked.

            In free countries, you are allowed to receive radio waves. Including Wifi ssids.

            Plus, Europe…Postage stamp sized yards/gardens are the standard.

            The panopticon is already in England. Cameras everywhere public. Ship has sailed.

          4. >Better fix that fence gap. Until you do, your yard is PUBLIC.

            The law doesn’t work like that. Private property is private first, then public second if you knowingly let people see into it. If there’s an accidental gap or some special angle with a view to your property, that you may not even know about, it doesn’t overrule the default.

          5. “They were mounting the cameras high and they could see over fences, into windows, etc…”

            Fences around the front yard? Nice neighborhood that must be!

            They see up into your windows? So what? Is it illegal to walk where you are? The human neck naturally can bend allowing the face to point up or down. Do you go chasing after every pedestrian who looks up?

            Sorry, but if you are doing it in your window then for all intents and purposes you are doing it in public. Try curtains if you are concerned.

            “They were recording WiFi”

            Boo hoo!

            I’m so tired of people thinking they get to use technology while being willfully ignorant of any and every detail regarding how it works. I’m not saying everyone needs to be a qualified technician but grow up and realize there are no magic boxes and you should consider it your responsibility to understand the world around you!

            WiFi broadcasts radio waves. It’s just like broadcast radio or TV if you are old enough to remember those. If you want something to be private do you call the local radio station and ask to announce it over the air? No?

            Google or anyone else recording WiFi as they drive by isn’t something new. It’s just you becoming aware of the fact that you were shouting in public all along when you thought you were whispering in the closet. Anyone could have monitored that before Google and anyone still can after Google.

            If you want privacy via WiFi then encrypt it. If you don’t want anyone to know your SSID then don’t broadcast it. Or.. stop using your dirty secrets as the SSID. And if you are REALLY concerned… turn it off and install Ethernet.

          6. >Fences around the front yard? Nice neighborhood that must be!

            Quite common for people who live along a busy street to have a hedge or a fence, so they can have a modicum of privacy without people constantly watching. The Google cars were mounting the cameras 2.3 meters high, so they would peer over the fences and in through ground floor windows which were normally obscured by said fences on purpose so people could let sunlight in and see some greenery while keeping people’s eyes out.


          7. Point being, people who had made reasonable efforts to protect their privacy were being violated. In the US for example, this reasonable effort leads to what’s called an expectation of privacy, which prevents even the police from peeking in without a warrant.

            If you hold the position that anything that can be seen from some public vantage point is legal to film, you introduce a loophole where you’re allowed to bypass the expectation of privacy by sticking a camera on a pole or on a drone and play paparazzi on your neighbors. It would also permit people (and the government) to see into your home using thermal imaging, or microwave scanning etc. to see through curtains and walls.

          8. > It’s just you becoming aware of the fact that you were shouting in public all along

            It’s possible to point a parabolic microphone or a laser beam at your window and amplify the subtle vibrations to hear what’s being said inside. Electricity usage patterns, heat emissions, EMI from devices… It’s totally impossible to prevent all information from “radiating” out, whisper or shout.

            Just because you can pick it up does not by default mean other people are allowed to listen in and record it. Why should WIFI signals be treated differently?

          9. Dude: No. The worst violator is the British government. Constant surveillance of all public areas.

            Ship has sailed in England. Mostly gone in urban America too.

            As I said in today’s camera vs privacy FA. Make an IR LED hat and license plate frame.

          10. Dude also:
            In the USA, when your front yard is on a road, your fence may not be a privacy fence. It has to be low enough that drivers can see over it (for corners).

            You have no expectation of privacy in your front yard. Casual photography will happen, dash cams etc. Back yard is a question, but if you have a low fence and your neighbor has a two story house, you better keep your pants on. You’re the one going to jail.

            In the USA, there is a no ladders/climbing trees/cameras on poles/drones under 400 feet rule. But two story house w. window, no expectation of privacy from them. If they start videoing to harass you, bad on them. They have a problem get a restraining order from a judge. If they install security cams and they catch part of your yard, tough titty. Ask them nicely to re aim the camera, point a spotlight at it…etc

  2. I would be willing to bet that the “phenomenon of ‘scope creep,’” was well considered by the city council and that they are eagerly looking forward to having their grubby little mitts on the collected data.

    1. There you go again, injecting reality into the discussion.

      City road crew is a classic overpaid patronage job. They aren’t even expected to actually work. We can hope that cameras will do something about it, but not yet.

      Despite crews being filmed at nudie bars, all day, every day (Detroit).
      What we learned from that? Don’t f with city council members’ family…they have more rights than you. You racist, soon to be unemployed, reporter!

      Didn’t work with TV stations (they won’t do that again). Perhaps citizen reporters will get around to them.

    1. Because they will benefit by the municipality forcing the property owners to pay the garbage company to haul the dead tree away.
      Look up franchising.

  3. Was there talk at some point about using cell-phone accelerometer data combined with GPS to provide information about street conditions? Another one of those things that could be done except for major privacy issues, I suppose.

    1. Outdoor access points in the area the trucks park, once authenticated, upload data. No need for 5G, 4G, 3G congestion. Also lowers the cost of running the system. From the business prospective if you lower the cost of implementing a system, there is less pushback. Overall the system makes sense, it is not adding much (if any) additional running cost to the garbage collection, provides a much more up to date reference to jobs that need to be completed. Could it see in a window, perhaps, it is even likely that it will. The question comes down to would the person(s) unhappy about this be ok with a person seeing the same thing, or an inanimate object/system. AI reviews data, humans only see the data that the AI has been trained to provide them, all other recordings have no reason to exist after about 48hrs.

  4. If it was really about just the infrastructure it would not need real time streaming and they could cache the video on the truck until they were back at the depot, so nah this is a cover for something else and given the gang problem in that part of Melbourne I can guess what it is. They are looking for stolen cars.

  5. If a view of the pavement is such a major privacy concern then could perhaps an SBC be installed with OpenCV or whatever programmed to look for problems and just record textual data of what problems it finds rather than storing or streaming the video?

    Sure, sounds like a difficult thing to develop (I say with zero OpenCV experience) but it would be a one-time thing. Find a company who will do it and sell it to multiple cities for profit.

  6. Given the priorities most governmental (local, national, any) bodies seem to have, they’ll record all this data, but never actually send out a van to fix any of the decaying infrastructure they find. But they’ll happily send out uniformed thugs to punish people any time they record an image of a billboard put up criticising them. They’ll pay no attention to all the potholes they record imagery (and they could have an accelerometer to detect how bad the bumps are, this without the cameras and wired to a GPS could be a pretty legit idea actually, send out a van of workers to any site where multiple trucks days apart all record a vertical jolt) of, but they’ll have jackboots at your door in minutes if they spy through a window (yes I know the resoltuion wouldn’t be high enough, but the principle is still what they all do) that you’ve got a bookshelf of samizdat titles.

    1. From what I’ve been told Australia is fairly good about infrastructure.
      Unlike the US where some cities don’t fix a pothole until it gets so big the bridge collapses.
      We have car eaters here. Usually marked with a cone that some drunk idiot will run over and it never gets replaced.
      I’m all for anything that could help the process.
      Anyone who has lost a tire, rim, axel…[car] is going to beg for this tech here!

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