As robots threaten to snatch all the good bellhop and sous chef gigs away from sentient beings, garbage collectors in Sweden, a country with very little garbage to begin with, also now have good reason to worry about the future of their given profession.
And it would appear that Gothenburg-based Volvo Group is leading the human-replacing robo-garbage revolution.
Functioning as a separate corporate entity from the iconic Swedish carmaker of the same name for over a decade, Volvo Group focuses exclusively on the manufacture of trucks, buses, construction equipment and vehicles used in the collection of household waste — vehicles traditionally manned by small teams of humans. While Volvo Group’s ROAR (Robot-based Autonomous Reuse handling) project wouldn’t oust human drivers yet, the brawny, bag-chucking collectors themselves would be made obsolete, replaced with bin-lifting humanoids that could best be described, judging by a single illustration released by Volvo, as the unholy union between Carl Taylor and a Segway.
In effect, the garbage truck driver would be liberated from performing any manual labor. However, he or she would gain the additional tile of robot wrangler which seems a daunting added level of responsibility.
Described by project lead Per-Lage Götvall, as "a way to stretch the imagination and test new concepts to shape transport solutions for tomorrow," Volvo Group explains the basic purpose of ROAR:
Imagine a robot that quietly and discreetly enters your neighborhood, collects your refuse bin and empties it into the refuse truck. It is done without waking the sleeping families and without heavy lifting for the refuse truck’s driver.
I’m not entirely sure how a fleet of trash can-toting wheeled machines zipping around a neighborhood at the crack of dawn would necessarily be quieter or more discreet. Perhaps Sweden has a serious problem with rowdy and/or loud grunting trash collectors? If anything, I imagine this method would attract even more attention, particularly from terrified neighborhood dogs and passing motorists. But hey, unlike human trash collectors, machines can’t judge the contents of your bin, right?
ROAR is a joint venture headed by Volvo Group working alongside teams hailing from two Swedish universities. A team from Mälardalen University, home to a world-renowned robotics program, is designing the robot itself while students from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg are devising the truck’s operating system — the brains, essentially.
Remarks Petter Falkman, associate professor of automation at Chalmers, in a press release issued by Volvo Group: “Chalmers has for many years developed the technology for the control and coordination of autonomous systems and we see that we can deal with problems of the complex type that waste handling entails. This will be a fun and challenging project for our driven researchers and motivated students.”
In addition to the two Swedish schools, students from Penn State’s Thomas D. Larsen Pennsylvania Transportation Institute will also help to usher in the rise of two-wheeled trash-hauling machines by developing the graphics, control panel and communication systems to be used by the truck’s driver.
And when the robots are developed and ready to be put to work (as early as June 2016!), Swedish waste management and recycling company Renova will oversee the operation of the vehicle itself.
This isn’t the first time that robots have stepped in to perform the dirty work normally performed by waste management employees.
Back in 2009, Alex Pasternack wrote of a friendly, Wall-E-esque bot named DustCart that was let loose by researchers on the streets of the small Tuscan village of Peccioli. Functioning as a sort of on-demand garbage man that went door-to-door collecting household trash, DustCart was conceived as a less noisy alternative to conventional garbage trucks that often have difficulty navigating the charming — but prohibitively tight — streets of small Italian towns.
Outside of employing robotics, some budget-slashing cities have experimented with — and failed at — replacing human labor with automated trucks that perform pretty much all of the heavy lifting. As the residents of Toledo could tell you, trash collection, no matter how grueling, is a job that still benefits from a human touch.