Is a robot the future of urban trash collection? A group of Italian scientists think it might be.


In the 1980’s the Italian town of Peccioli built one of the most advanced trash disposal sites in Italy, designed to recycle and produce green energy. For 20 years, it’s been Peccioli’s most profitable business. Peccioli’s affinity for innovative trash collection and the fact that its narrow, winding streets can often prove impassable to big, unwieldy, garbage trucks provided local scientists with a perfect test site for their new robotic creation – DustCart.  A group of  scientists from a nearby university in Pisa called Peccioli’s City Hall and asked for permission to run a test of their new prototype. The scientists transformed a terrace into an outdoor laboratory, laying wires on the cobblestone, installing webcams at street corners, and setting up a control room to monitor DustCart’s operation.


DustCart is designed to answer a customer’s call for a trash pick-up, make its way to their location and ask for a personal ID number that identifies the user and tracks the garbage. It also asks for the kind of trash being dumped – organic, recyclable or waste. DustCart then opens its belly bin, collects the trash and takes it to a dumping site.

“The main benefit we expect for both service provider and citizens,” said Paolo Dario, a soft-spoken scientist who heads the Robotics Department at the Scuola Superiore Sant’ Anna University, “is the fact that this service is available on demand.”

Besides replacing the garbage man, Dario said DustCart could also eliminate the noise pollution that comes with traditional Italian trash collection by running on a silent, lithium-battery operated engine. The robot is also outfitted with special sensors that monitor air temperature, as well as air pollutants, such as: nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone, benzene, CO and CO2.


DustCart avoids fixed obstacles, thanks to preloaded information on the physical environment; and stops in front of moving objects with the help of sensors. The Peccioli test proved “Dusty” still needs some work on his maneuverability and overall function. More complex and congested city environments will undoubtedly pose even greater challenges for the unmanned garbage bot.  If the funky robot garbageman is a success, it could revolutionize garbage collection throughout many small Italian towns where the traditional garbage truck gets stuck at tight turns in the road.

DustCart is part of a project called “DustBot,” a $3.9 million research program that started in 2006 to implement robotics in society in useful ways.  I’m sure the local garbagemen’s union will also have something to say about DustCart’s future.  As far as getting around those streets – anyone know a good Italian insurance company?