Needed: Trashpile-Cleaning Robots

28May08

We have mountains of trash. Inside those mountains are all sorts of things that could be better used. Some are recyclable. Some are compostable. Some are still potentially useful. Some are even brand new.

A trashpile-cleaning robot could have a camera and could be connected to the Internet. It could be connected to an electrical outlet, in which case it could work around the clock and could have quite a bit of power to move things.

The robot would look at some trash. As its online database became more refined, it would become better at identifying discrete objects and determining where they belong. Recyclable cans and bottles would be relatively easy; unopened cans of soup might require a combination of a visual inspection, a UPC code scan, and a weighing. Some items (e.g., a sofa) might require a sniff test and human judgment to determine whether it seemed potentially salvageable.

Each of the robot’s judgments would appear on a website. A fully trained robot (i.e., making judgments based upon an online database that seems highly familiar with the local kinds of soda cans and tree branches) might have graduated to automated mode, in which its website would merely record a continuous history of how it has handled each decision. A novice robot might pause at each item, showing on the webpage its determination of what the item is, and awaiting confirmation from one or more supervising humans online.

The robot would not necessarily need to move each identified item very far. It could be accompanied by dumpsters (e.g., one dumpster for aluminum cans) fed by conveyor belts that would turn on and advance just a few inches each time a new item was placed on them. Composting could be done on the spot. The robot could employ a winch to move heavier items out of the way, or could be accompanied by a heavy-duty service robot capable of digging, tugging, etc.

Items preliminarily deemed resellable could be set aside and listed for auction on the website, complete with the robot’s pictures of them and data obtained from the robot’s UPC scanner. Packing and shipping of such items might be partially automated as well.

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