Rubbish robots

'Wall-E' may have been just a movie, but we do in fact make use of robots to clean up our trash.

August 23, 2012 13:51
4 minute read.
There are robots with a similar job to Wall-E

WallE 521. (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 home.

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 years.

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.

Specialized robots created for combat and rescue by the US company iRobot have been deployed at Fukushima.

These robots, looking very much like a primitive version of Wall-E, are hardened against radiation and operated by remote control from a safe distance.

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 reactor.

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 equipment.

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.

The 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.

When 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 production.

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 garbage.

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.

Although 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.

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