Robots may hold the solution to New York City’s garbage problem. In an innovative project led by Cornell Tech doctoral candidate Frank Bu, garbage collection robots were created and deployed in public spaces to study how people interact with the robots and how this can be used to promote garbage collection.

The goal of this project, a collaboration between Bu’s team and Village Alliance, an organization advocating for the Greenwich Village community, was to address the urgent problem of waste in the city. According to the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the metropolitan region produces a staggering 14 million tons of garbage each year, which often ends up in landfills, incinerators, or contaminates sidewalks and bodies of water.

To tackle this problem, Bu repurposed electric skateboards to create two types of human-controlled garbage bins. The electric skateboards provided more power and speed, allowing the robot to move faster and carry more weight. Additionally, using electric skateboards proved to be a more cost-effective solution compared to buying separate motors and batteries.

The garbage collection robots were operated by two “wizards” from the back, who controlled the movements of the robots. Users of the robots had positive reactions and expressed their convenience, especially for people with disabilities who found the robots to be of great help. Users also appreciated the fact that the robots stayed in a specific area of the park, improving their sense of security.

The project also involved analyzing videos of interactions between users and the garbage robots. The team identified both obvious and covert human gestures that were used to communicate with the robot. Some interactions were notably positive, with people pointing towards the garbage bin or moving the trash to get the robot’s attention.

The team observed different reactions to the garbage robot in different areas of the city, attributed to the distinct demographics of each location. In Astor Place, where there is a higher concentration of tourists and students, the robot was often mistaken for a piece of art. On the other hand, Albee Square residents attributed historical significance to the robot, with some reminiscing about the area’s past and development.

Bu and his team are now using the data collected from interviews and videos to program the robots to act in a socially acceptable manner without the need for human intervention. This involves developing signals that allow the robots to determine when to provide their services or approach a human based on factors such as how long they have been in the area, whether they are eating, or if they have garbage.

By using garbage collection robots, it is expected that the city of New York can make significant progress in effectively managing its waste and creating cleaner and more sustainable public spaces.

– Mayor’s Office of Sustainability
– Village Alliance