"Imagine a robot that quietly and discreetly enters your neighborhood." This is not the prelude to a new cautionary tale about the inevitable rise of the machines, but rather the opener to Volvo's press release announcing a new joint venture for the development of autonomous trash-collecting robots. These two-wheeled bots — who in their present conceptual stage look like cousins of Disney's Wall-E — will "collect your refuse bin and empty it into the refuse truck ... without waking the sleeping families and without heavy lifting for the refuse truck’s driver," says the Swedish company.
"Stretch the imagination and test new concepts to shape transport solutions for tomorrow."
The Robot-based Autonomous Refuse handling (ROAR) project is already underway and involves collaboration with waste recycling firm Renova and three universities. In Sweden, Chalmers University of Technology is responsible for developing the software and Mälardalen University is handling the hardware. Over in the United States, Penn State University will take care of the communication system between the ROAR drones and the refuse truck driver — because, while autonomous to an extent, the robots will still be very much under the driver's control.
Volvo envisions this venture as just one manifestation of "a future with more automation," accoording to project leader Per-Lage Götvall, who also says that it will provide "a way to stretch the imagination and test new concepts to shape transport solutions for tomorrow." Thanks to the instrumental involvement of academic institutions and Volvo's own emphasis on entrusting students with the key developmental tasks, the project should help propel research and education, if nothing else. And there are actually plans to put these partially autonomous trash collectors into action: Renova says the technology will be tested on a vehicle it is developing for this purpose in the summer of 2016.