A real-life Wall-E

PECCIOLI, Italy — In this 8th century town, amid the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside, everyone talks trash. Even at the local restaurant, visitors chewing on roasted meat are asked for their thoughts on garbage.

Since the late 1980s, nothing has made Peccioli residents happier than collecting garbage. At that time, the small town built one of the most advanced dumping sites in Italy, designed to recycle and produce green energy. For 20 years, it’s been Peccioli’s most profitable business.

So when a group of young scientists from a nearby university in Pisa called Peccioli’s city hall and asked for permission to run a robotics test, all they had to do was say the magic word: trash.

During a recent test-run at Peccioli’s main terrace, the future of garbage collection zoomed in on two wheels, rounded and shiny, devoid of arms, and with two big round inspiring eyes.

While adults watched intensely behind their handy-cams, flocks of children stared in awe at the biggest “toy” they had ever seen.

Meet DustCart, a prototype robot that seems to have escaped from the animated movie “Wall-E.” As cute as it looks, it could revolutionize garbage collection throughout many small Italian towns where the traditional garbage truck gets stuck at tight turns in the road.

“We are about to begin,” said a researcher over a microphone.

The scientists had transformed the 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 every move.

“Our colleague will now simulate a user’s call,” said the researcher.

Like a taxi answering a call, DustCart rode across the terrace to meet the caller.

Once the robot arrived, it asked for a personal ID number that both identifies the user and tracks the garbage. It also asked for the kind of trash being dumped — organic, recyclable or waste. DustCart then opened its belly bin, collected the trash and took it to a fake 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 be an answer to the noise pollution that comes with traditional trash collection in Italy. In cities like Rome, for example, noisy trucks collect garbage in the middle of night.

To solve that problem, DustCart runs on a silent, lithium-battery operated engine.

The robot is also equipped with special sensors that monitor air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone, benzene, CO, CO2 and air temperature.

“A fleet of DustCarts could send precise data on the air we breathe, in real time,” said Barbara Mazzolai, DustCart Project Manager.

DustCart avoids fixed obstacles thanks to preloaded information on the physical environment, and stops in front of moving objects with the help of sensors.

However, the overall reaction time still seems too slow to cope with any real environment. Inserting DustCart throughout the congested streets of European capitals is an even farther reach.

“We still need to work on it,” admitted Mazzolai, “but we are on the right track.”

Fortunately, the research team has the time and money to do it.

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, such as cleaning the streets.

It was given a friendly look to encourage interaction with humans. But for some Italians, who believe in drying their shirts on clothes lines even in December and still look at microwaves with suspicion, the idea of handing their trash to robots seems a little too advanced — or odd. Even in Peccioli.

“Perhaps I find it hard to give my final opinion on a project like this,” said Luca Di Sandro, a small businessman from the town. “But I have become curious.”

But approval from Peccioli residents isn’t the only obstacle standing in front of DustCart. Motor vehicle laws will have to be amended to include mobile robots since they aren't operated by humans.

“Who should be held accountable for the behavior of this robot?” asked Dario, referring to a possibile malfunction. “The law doesn’t say — it doesn’t know yet."

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