For the past decade, a lot of our worst trash emergencies have been handled by robots who might just be the forebears of Wall-E. Toxic sludge, dangerous barrels of chemicals, and even the dust poots on your floor are being scrubbed up by semi-autonomous robots. And researchers are working on even more sophisticated bots to reduce the massive pollution build-ups and even more toxic goo we're likely to unleash in the future. Below, we introduce you to six tidy garbage bots whose progeny are likely to inherit the planet.
M-3500 ship-cleaning bot. Pictured above, the M-3500 clings to the outside of giant cargo ships, and uses water to blast all the goo and rust right off the hull. Here you can see it on the underside of a ship, but later it will crawl all the way up the side, leaving a sparkly trail of shiny hull in its wake. Read more about M-3500. Photo for C|Net by Michael Kanellos.
S.A. Robotics Waste Container Handling System (WCHS). The WCHS is designed to handle drums of waste or toxins, delivering them to "bagout ports," or spots that the barrels will drain into. The WCHS is operated remotely, and can pick up a barrel, then rotate it onto its side, and feed its contents to the bagout port. It can also be set up to work entirely autonomously. The waste drum lift on the left can heft and then rotate 1000 lb. drums; while the "daughter lifts" on the right can handle 1000 lb. drums as well but can't rotate them. S.A. Robotics has several other garbage robots, like a waste separator and bots that suck shredded cables off the ocean floor.
BigBelly Solar Compactor. This Trash Compactor bot, powered by a solar panel that's protected by ultrahard plastic, compacts all the trash tossed into it and even separates plastic trash out into a separate container. This means more garbage can fit into a smaller container, eliminating those overflowing trash cans you see everywhere in city parks. The next generation of BigBelly's bot will have remote networking capabilities, letting waste management workers know when the machine is full to the brim. You can already see the BigBelly Compactors in San Francisco, Vancouver, Boston, and on a bunch of college campuses across North America. Apparently the plastic covering their solar cells is so strong you can smash it with a baseball bat and it will remain uninjured. Though doing that is not recommended.
UltraStrip paint-stripping robot. Like the ship-cleaning robot, the UltraStrip clings to the sides of buildings or ships, stripping paint as it moves. Developed at Carnegie-Mellon, the UltraStrip you see here is stripping paint off a ship's hull.
Roomba and Scooba. By now, you've probably met one of the cuddly, autonomous Roomba sweeping bots or Scooba mopping bots created by iRobot (which also builds military reconnaissance bots). Push a button on the Roomba's back and it zooms around a room, feeling its way along the walls with its pressure-sensitive front section, swirling in ever-widening circles on open floor, and even freeing itself from cords that get caught its vacuum. They will even find their way back to their power station and plug into it when their batteries run low.
Swarm Robots. The NSF has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a project that would turn autonomous, swarming robots into a vast waste-cleanup unit. Swarming robots work by communicating with each other wirelessly to tackle tasks. Waste-eliminating swarm bots would probably be waterborne, and capable of sucking up toxic spills on the ocean. They might convert the sludge into harmless material, or absorb it until they are full and then swim back to a central base to be drained into a safe container.