(photo credit: Reuters)
In the Pixar movie Wall-E, the earth is suffering the dystopian future that
environmentalists warned us about. The world’s waste products have submerged the
entire earth in garbage and destroyed all plant life, leaving the earth desolate
and uninhabitable. In the film, it is only the tireless efforts of the Wall-E
robots who slowly clean the earth that give the humans hope of ever returning
Although the movie is entirely fictional, there are robots today
that have a job quite similar to Wall-E: To clean up the pollution that humans
caused and now can’t deal with. The most obvious pollutant that is hard to clean
up is nuclear contamination, which can be lethal within seconds, preventing
people from going in and dealing with the problem for possibly hundreds of
In Japan, the problem of a radiation leak is further compounded at
the recently damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant because there is so
much radiation that even robots can’t enter safely.
created for combat and rescue by the US company iRobot have been deployed at
These robots, looking very much like a primitive version of
Wall-E, are hardened against radiation and operated by remote control from a
The operators still have to wear full radiation suits,
which greatly impairs their ability to control the robots, but it is still
better than the instant death that awaits within the danger zone of the
The robots are capable of climbing rubble or even stairs,
opening doors by the doorknob and even carrying the full weight of a person. As
of now, their missions mostly consist of determining radiation levels, surveying
the damage to direct assistance and construction crews, and even using
improvised vacuum cleaners to suck up radioactive dust to prevent it from
blowing out into occupied areas.
Radiation leaks aren’t the only frontier
humans require robotic help to clean up. As evidenced by the difficulty in
raising wrecked ships, reaching the bottom of the ocean is no small task on its
own, not to mention trying to retrieve sunken debris. Tons of plastic and other
pollutants have accumulated into floating islands and some have even sunk to the
bottom of the ocean, far out of our reach without specialized
Elie Ahovi and a team of collaborators have put together a
concept robot to help us deal with exactly that. His robot, a mix between a
vacuum cleaner and a robot fish, is designed to fight back against the
accumulation of plastics and other garbage in large bodies of water.
oddly shaped robot looks like a scoop with futuristically rounded edges and a
snappy orange color scheme.
What is revolutionary about this “bucket-bot”
is its autonomous ability to deal with pollutants. The drone patrols the water
without any need for human intervention and uses sophisticated programming and
sensors to determine what to scoop inside its body, making sure to scoop only
things that are harmful. As an added measure to prevent it from scooping fish by
mistake, the robot is equipped with a sonic emitter which is designed to repel
most forms of aquatic life that could conceivably get in its way.
its scoop is full, the robot docks with a trash barge, which would empty it for
disposal and then send it off again with a fresh charge. Since even that final
step could be done automatically, this concept robot might be the first
completely autonomous pollution cleaning robot once it finally enters
WHILE THE bucket-robot is excellent news for our existing
pollution problem, it doesn’t do anything to stop the problem at its roots: us.
As long as we continue to pollute the ocean, robots like the bucket-bot will be
working endlessly just to keep the status quo, especially since it is easier to
pollute than to clean up. As an answer to this problem, the amusingly and aptly
named SHOAL project has also made a robot fish, this one designed to help track
down the sources of pollution, rather than to actually pick up the
The robot is equipped with a dazzling range of sensors that can
be used to track various pollutants to their source, which might be hidden pipes
or secret dumping grounds that investigators can’t find just by surveying in
airplanes or boats.
Since the SHOAL robotic fish is, unlike the
bucket-bot, intended for observation and stealth, it had been designed to look
much like a real fish: It has the same aerodynamic shape, the same coloring and
even moves in a fishlike manner as it seeks out pollutants. Since the robot can
easily be mistaken for a real fish, it comes equipped with a sonic “fish
repellent” to make sure it isn’t eaten or molested by various forms of aquatic
life which might mistake it for a meal. SHOAL’s robotic fish is about 1.5 meters
in length, and made of carbon fiber and metal. As of now, each fish is expected
to cost around $30,000 because it isn’t yet in mass production.
none of the robots that you might find cleaning up pollution today have the same
magnetic personality as Wall-E, they are already working tirelessly to help us
clean up our act. It is likely that the next generation of robots will be closer
to Wall-E in conception as well as function – because as society accumulates
garbage, we need an increasingly large workforce to help us deal with it.